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What will Brexit mean for FE?

Whatever form Brexit takes, it will have significant implications, says the Learning and Work Institute's Stephen Evans

brexit european union colleges skills students

Whatever form Brexit takes, it will have significant implications, says the Learning and Work Institute's Stephen Evans

With tight late-night votes and ongoing debates about Brexit, it’s no wonder the government wanted Parliament to finish early for the summer. If only we could all do that in our jobs…

Predicting what will happen next is a mug's game. But that’s never stopped me before, so here it goes.

One of the potential scenarios is that we leave the European Union in March 2019 with no deal. A leaked government paper on the potential impact of this included the hair-raising prospect of keeping the lights on in Northern Ireland by floating electricity generators brought back from Afghanistan on barges in the Irish Sea.

Hopefully, of course, that won’t happen. And in practice "no deal" is unlikely to really mean "no deal" – otherwise planes won’t be able to fly between the UK and EU and vice versa. Surely neither side would allow this to happen? Ultimately, no deal would likely involve at least the rollover of some basic existing arrangements.

But whatever the scenario, I think there are two key issues we need to focus on.

1. What happens to the rights of EU citizens after Brexit?

This affects both staff and learners at colleges, and providers. Basic decency suggests that whatever the outcome of negotiations, both the UK government and EU countries would grant ongoing rights to citizens in their respective countries. But the uncertainty until that is guaranteed is stressful. As employers, we all need to make sure we support employees in this position.

For current learners, again one would hope that people would be able to finish their course on the same basis they started it, even if there were no deal. However, the potential deals could mean very different things for potential future learners. A no-deal scenario could mean EU citizens being treated in the same way as non-EU citizens. But an agreement along the lines of Theresa May’s Chequers proposal could mean something closer to the current funding arrangements, with EU citizens able to come to the UK if they have a job or approved learning offer. This will, of course, impact differently on colleges and providers – for some, it could affect their business models relatively substantially.

2. How do we increase investment in learning, skills and employment?

Whatever deal is reached (or not), there is a clear case for greater investment in learning, skills and employment to boost growth and widen opportunity. There’s a Spending Review coming up next spring for which we need to make that point.

The deal the UK agrees will influence both long- and short-run economic growth. Most (though not all) economists think a no-deal Brexit would lead to significant problems in the short run at least. In such a scenario, colleges and providers need to stand ready for a rise in demand – generally downturns lead to more people going into learning, partly to improve their long-term prospects and partly due to reduced job opportunities.

There’s also a specific point around the European Social Fund (ESF), which will fund £2.4 billion of employment and skills projects between 2014 and 2020. The government says it will replace the ESF with a new Shared Prosperity Fund once the proposed transition period has ended in December 2020  – I’m proud of Learning and Work Institute’s role in a cross-sector campaign to secure that during last year’s general election. We need to make sure the Shared Prosperity Fund is at least as big as the ESF and much more flexible. If we do leave the EU with no deal, we need to make sure that the government honours its promise to underwrite ESF projects until December 2020.

Brexit doesn’t change the fact that people need learning, skills and employment support. But the form Brexit takes could have significant implications for all of us. We need to be ready to adapt.

In the meantime, an old slogan springs to mind: keep calm and carry on.

Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute

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