Media Release

Further education is key to social mobility in Brexit Britain

The Further Education sector can be a vital driver of social mobility in Britain after Brexit, according to a new report from the Social Market Foundation thinktank.

The research finds that although the FE and skills sector faces a series of challenges over the next two decades, it can seize the opportunity to play an even greater role in helping people of all ages raise their skills and wages. Many FE colleges play a vital role in towns and communities that voted Leave in the EU referendum and are sometimes described as feeling “left behind” by recent economic change.

Despite the political importance of the communities that the FE and skills sector serves, the report —  sponsored by the Further Education Trust for Leadership —  warns that the FE and skills sector faces both financial pressures and an uncertain policy environment.

It also explains how leaving the European Union could present a massive opportunity for the sector. The report argues that maximising FE and skills’ ability to boost the technical skills of British workers, young and old, should be an urgent priority for politicians, given that Brexit may reduce the number of skilled European workers in the UK.

FE and skills providers, in partnership with employers, are particularly well-placed to promote the lifelong learning that will be needed in the global economy of the 21st Century – many workers in their 50s and 60s will find training at their local college more convenient and relevant than a university degree.

The report identifies three ways for the FE colleges and other providers to thrive in the years ahead:

  • Local Social Mobility Champions’ – In the post-Brexit world, with the growing focus on UK competitiveness, regional growth and inclusive economic opportunities, colleges become local champions and engines of social mobility addressing the UK’s deficiency in technical skills as the country reduces immigration and focuses more on domestic skills.
  • Tech chains’ – With technological developments eroding the importance of ‘place’, powerful UK and international providers will compete with the FE and skills sector to provide distance and virtual learning. We envisage combinations of colleges, independent providers and employers aggregating capital, skills and marketing power to compete under one brand. This will involve transitioning from physical learning and physical estates to virtual learning.
  • Employer-embedded partnerships’ – With employers exercising greater control of training under the Apprenticeship Levy, independent training providers and colleges will have to be ever more adaptable to their skills needs. Employers themselves are likely to make more strategic decisions about their own role in training provision alongside a greater need to integrate learning in the workplace. These trends and the increasing need to reskill workers could drive employers to seek even deeper partnerships with independent providers and colleges.

The report focuses in particular on four market developments that will present different competitive threats to the sector:

  • Brexit – and fewer EU students – could mean the university sector competes more aggressively with the FE and skills sector for learners.
  • Schools and colleges will both collaborate and compete. While funding shortages may drive schools to attract 16-18 students, such threats are offset by a demographic bulge of school-age children that will emerge over the next decade.
  • In response to changes to industrial policy and the Apprenticeship Levy, employers themselves may seek to provide what previously has been delivered by other parts of the FE and skills sector.
  • Educational technology (Edtech) will see learners self-direct, whilst distance learning and virtual learning will undermine the hold that colleges have on their local population and expand competition.

James Kirkup, director of the Social Market Foundation, commented:

“The people who chose to live and work and study where they grew up deserve a better deal than they get right now. They deserve more respect for that choice about how and where to live, and they deserve opportunities to learn and train. The sort of opportunities that a well-supported HE sector, working with enlightened employers in the context of sensible Government policy, is uniquely placed to provide.

“Yet FE and skills faces real and growing challenges in the years ahead, and not just financial ones. Competition from HE and schools will grow, and the spread of educational technology will pose new questions for the sector.

“Today, only 10 per cent of the British workforce holds a certificate of technical education as their highest qualification. That puts us 16th out of 20 OECD countries: making a success of the “Global Britain” so cheerily anticipated by some bright-eyed Brexiteers will surely require more of the technical skills that FE and skills can provide.”

Dame Ruth Silver, Founding President of FETL, commented:

“Given the compound turbulence faced by the sector in recent times, with its costly impact on community opportunities, tweaking the status quo is no longer good enough.

“The SMF makes the powerful case for the strengthening of this important sector and proceeds to scope the possibilities ahead for all to take further. This is strategic thinking in action signalling possibilities ahead.”



  • A copy of the report, Rising to the Challenge, is attached to this release.
  • About the Social Market Foundation:

The Social Market Foundation (SMF) is an independent, non-partisan think tank. We believe that fair markets, complemented by open public services, increase prosperity and help people to live well. We conduct research and run events looking at a wide range of economic and social policy areas, focusing on economic prosperity, public services and consumer markets. The SMF is resolutely independent, and the range of backgrounds and opinions among our staff, trustees and advisory board reflects this.

  • About the Further Education Trust for Leadership:

FETL is an independent think tank and charity working to strengthen and support the leadership of thinking in further education and skills. For too long, further education has been under-researched, under-conceptualised, under-theorised and under-understood.

  • Interviews/media enquiries:

Please contact Mercedes Broadbent, SMF Communications Manager on (0)207 222 7060/07425 609 148


Related items:

Page 1 of 1