‘Domestic skills policies are no longer delivering’

9th March 2018 at 00:00
New report highlights Brexit fears and need for a flexible, demand-led approach

Scotland’s colleges have received tens of millions in European funding during the last few years, which they have invested into re-engaging those learners most distant from the workplace. Now, with Brexit approaching, they are seeking assurances that the governments in Holyrood and Westminster will mitigate the loss of that money.

“Colleges in Scotland share our concerns over a number of issues associated with Brexit implications for the sector,” says Colleges Scotland chief executive Shona Struthers.

“European Union funding helps Scotland’s colleges deliver high-quality courses which are beneficial to students, colleges, Scotland’s economy and our wider society,” she adds.

Her comments come as a new report by two former SNP MPs highlights the need for a skilled workforce as the single biggest concern businesses have with regards to Brexit. The Brexit and Scottish Business final report, published by Momentous Change – a company founded by Roger Mullin and Michelle Thomson, who authored the report – recommends that the Scottish government should commission a review of its skills strategy.

This, adds the report, should have “a particular requirement to make recommendations on how the skills strategy can be made more flexible, more business-needs driven, more responsive to changing circumstances and more business-user friendly”.

National concern

Mullin, a former government adviser on FE reform, tells Tes Scotland: “Access to labour and skills is the most significant Brexit issue for businesses in Scotland. It is a concern across all sectors of the economy and at all levels.

“These concerns are primarily a function of Scotland’s demography. Scotland needs to access labour, particularly from the EU, to support its businesses and therefore its economy.

“This explains why, even among firms whose leaders support leaving the EU, there is no appetite for restricting freedom of movement.”

He adds: “Although access to labour is the prime concern, worries about domestic skills policies also feature. Businesses are looking for increased flexibility in the skills system, less bureaucracy and a much more demand-led approach. Brexit merely raises concerns that already existed, but there are genuine concerns that domestic skills policies are no longer delivering the quality needed for the fast-changing world we live in.”

The movement of goods around the UK is an example for this, he says. “Without considering the problem of the number of EU nationals working as HGV and other drivers in the economy, there is currently an estimated 36,000 to 40,000 shortage of drivers across the UK. This will become worse if EU nationals in the industry return home. The current apprenticeship system produces only a very small number of drivers each year. This is an example of an area where much more serious focus is needed.”

Mullin explains that the current skills system is seen as still driven by an early 1990s “fascination with competence-based qualifications that are administratively burdensome and unsuited to many sectors”.

He says: “More concern is shown about the raw numbers undertaking modern apprenticeships, rather than about the quality of skills needed for key sectors of the economy. It is time to undertake a root-and-branch review of government skills policies.”

Ready for impact

For Colleges Scotland, Shona Struthers says: “Through Developing Scotland’s Workforce and the Youth Employment Initiative, £66 million of EU finance has been invested in our colleges over the past three years, often focused on those most distant from the workforce. We are seeking reassurances around how this will be mitigated by the UK and Scottish governments post-Brexit.”

“In addition to direct funding, there are doubts over the future of the extremely valuable cultural exchange programmes, Erasmus and Erasmus Plus. Again, Colleges Scotland is working to mitigate the impact of these programmes.

“Michelle Thomson and Roger Mullin are making it clear that organisations need to be ready for the impact of Brexit. This is a view we share, which is why colleges are working hard to help make themselves ready to mitigate challenges and capitalise on any opportunities.

She adds: “As part of the learner journey, colleges are working closely with employers to deliver valuable training and work experience coupled with courses that are delivering the necessary skills to produce a work-ready workforce for the future.”

A Scottish government spokeswoman says: “The government has increased the revenue budget for colleges by 8.3 per cent to nearly £600 million next year, with the college capital budget also increasing by nearly £30 million.”

She adds: “However, despite these increases, it’s clear that the loss of EU support would have potentially significant effects for the further education sector in Scotland.

@JBelgutay

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