FE deserves a seat at the Brexit table

We still don’t know what Brexit will look like, but as FE has so much skin in the game, it deserves a say in talks

This week marks one year since the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, a toxic time in our political and democratic history.

Perhaps the divisions are still too raw to reflect properly on those months of bitter editorials, divisive tactics and empty slogans. It’s not been the year of healing we needed, so it’s no wonder that current chatter about another general election – should the Conservative minority government arrangements fail – is ironically uniting the country in a sense of collective despair.

As with the endless occasions I’ve signed an email on my iPhone with ‘Shame’, pundits and public alike can no longer rely on predictive politics.

While there is something quietly satisfying about the voices of the unheard changing an outcome predicted by ‘experts’ – and young people in particular if early analysis of turnout is to be believed – the involvement of more and different groups of people in the political process can, and should, result in a noticeable change of discourse.

With the right case and the right ideas, FE can be a formidable voice

It was fantastic to see so many colleges doing their bit, but let’s not pretend that the only reason young people turned out and voted was the promise of free tuition fees, as if they haven’t noticed the impacts of austerity on their local youth services, their schools and their colleges, or the broken housing market, the impact of benefit cuts on their families and an overstretched NHS. Let’s resist the commentators belittling and patronising the youth vote as reacting to promises of sweets and freebies, and instead do a better job at analysing policy impacts on future generations.

The new government, however it’s formed and however long it lasts, can start to do that in the way in conducts itself as it starts Brexit negotiations with the European Union this week, and in planning for Britain’s role as an independent nation trading with the world. Further education, as a sector, has interests here and should be mounting its case for a seat at the table. With the right case and the right ideas, FE can be a formidable voice and must have the confidence to speak up alongside powerful business and university lobbies.

Here are three interlinked areas where I believe there can be better policy in which FE isn’t a passive player.

Firstly, domestic skills policy. Even if we hadn’t had a referendum and weren’t leaving the EU, the UK has major and sometimes debilitating skills challenges which aren’t going away; the need for accessible training opportunities to gain and progress in work or to change jobs in every corner of the country, to stay in good work longer as our population ages, and to adapt to rising changes in the way we work as more people become self-employed or are in insecure work – all of this matters just as much as it did before.

Results of a survey shortly after the election from the Institute for Directors showed that education, skills and training should be the second highest priority policy area for the new Government, after developing a trade agreement with the EU.

Secondly, FE’s future relationship with the EU: what sort of relationship do we want? I’ve heard anecdotally from many sector leaders about the various opportunities and challenges different forms of Brexit could present for the sector but I’ve seen comparatively little, relative to universities for example, of proactive ideas from people at Number 10 and the Department for Exiting the European Union to properly represent what the sector wants.

Finally, for now, is the sector’s longer-term role and responsibilities in Britain’s international trade. There’s much talk of trade deals at the moment, both within the EU, the Commonwealth and the rest of the world. Trade deals are not just about tariffs and goods; they are also about services, like education and training, and movement of people, including international students. We all want FE, as well as our universities, to be prime reasons why counties and businesses globally invest in Britain, and now is the time to demand a seat at the table.


Shane Chowen is head of policy and public affairs at the Learning and Work Institute

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