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Leaving the EU: Funding for Further Education

Volume 618: debated on Monday 19 December 2016

7. What assessment she has made of the effect on further education institutions of the potential loss of access to the (a) European social fund and (b) European regional development fund after the UK leaves the EU. (907948)

Following the European Union referendum on 23 June we are considering all aspects of how the vote of the people of the UK to leave the EU might impact on further education institutions. This includes consideration of institutions’ access to EU funding sources. We are committed to ensuring the FE sector remains effective in delivering learning that provides individuals with the skills the economy needs for growth.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has committed to stability and certainty in the period leading up to our departure from the EU. Further education institutions in Glasgow—including Glasgow Kelvin College in my constituency—and across the UK will need that certainty in any post-Brexit scenario. Those colleges have benefited from European social funding to the tune of £1.5 million this year alone. Brexit was not a matter of Scotland’s choosing or of Glasgow’s choosing. Will the Government commit to abandoning the empty “Brexit means Brexit” rhetoric, publishing detailed plans, providing certainty and standing by our colleges on funding?

Leaving the European Union will mean that we will want to take our own decisions on how to deliver the policy objectives previously targeted by EU funding. The Government are consulting closely with stakeholders to review all EU funding schemes in the round, to ensure that any ongoing funding commitments best serve the UK’s national interest while ensuring appropriate certainty.

Given that all EU spending in Britain is simply returning part of our gross contribution to the EU budget, would it not be sensible for the Government simply to commit now to replacing EU funding with UK Exchequer funding, thereby keeping everyone happy?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As I have just said, the fact that the British people voted to leave the EU means that the United Kingdom Government will decide how best to spend the money that was previously going to the European Union.

Colleges Scotland has received more than £250 million in EU funding in the past 10 years to help fund capital projects. Given that it was this Government who gambled away Scotland’s EU membership, what is the likelihood of their replacing this type of vital funding in the years ahead?

I find it interesting, given that the hon. Lady’s party’s position is to campaign for more powers to go from Westminster to Scotland, that she would rather have funding decisions made by an authority in the European Union than by one in Scotland. Having said that, she will know that the Chancellor has announced that the Treasury will guarantee structural and investment funding bids that are signed before the UK leaves the EU. This includes funding for projects agreed after the autumn statement, provided that they represent good value for money and are in line with the Government’s strategic priorities, even if they continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU.

Our further education colleges benefit hugely from European structural funds such as the European social fund, as has been mentioned. The Government told me in February that the Skills Funding Agency had received £725 million from the European social fund, and that in 2014-15, £120 million went directly to FE colleges from European funding. That money guarantees thousands of apprenticeships, jobs and new skills. Can the Minister guarantee that the Government will replace that £120 million after Brexit? Will FE colleges that provide higher education courses then get the same Government guarantees on replacement funding as universities?

I had hoped that, in the spirit of Christmas, the hon. Gentleman might have welcomed the 900,000 apprenticeship participation figure, the highest on record in our island’s history. As I have said, access to European funding is just one aspect of college business that will be impacted by the decision to leave the European Union. We are considering all the aspects of how FE colleges could be affected. It is also worth noting that, by 2020, the adult FE budget will be the highest in the nation’s history if we include apprenticeships and adult learner loans in the budget as a whole.