What are the likely impacts of Brexit on UK education, both in curricular and in sectoral terms?
This short essay considers the likely impact of the proposed withdrawal from the European Union by the UK, which is presently being negotiated between the British government and the EU following the 2016 referendum on the question of continued EU membership (Uberoi, 2016). The essay, therefore, is based on current knowledge as of June 2018. The educational landscape is one which will be affected by any permanent move from the EU both in terms of the way the sector operates, and in the sense of curriculum content and delivery. This essay, therefore, offers an overview of such likely effects of ‘Brexit’ withdrawal from the EU as identified by educational and political commentators.
In terms of the likely impacts of Brexit on higher education, Mayhew (2017) suggests that there are four areas of principal concern (Mayhew, 2017). These areas include first, the harmful impact of the loss of research funding monies from European Union agencies; EU research and development funds account for approximately 3% of universities’ annual income, and over 15% of total research income, and as such these are not only considerable amounts, but are from pools which have until the present been increasing in their importance to research funding (Mayhew, 2017). Second is the potential impact of a reduction in EU citizens studying in the UK as a consequence of Brexit. EU nationals account for 23% of full-time HE learners and as much as 70% of full-time taught higher degree students, and disinclination to study in a non-EU UK could have sizeable impacts on the viability of courses, if not in terms of viability at the institutional level for those settings reliant on overseas learners (Mayhew, 2017). The third negative impact predicted is the potential impact on the academic workforce in the UK, 16% of which is “accounted for by EU nationals [from outside the UK]. By comparison 12 per cent are non-EU nationals” (Mayhew, 2017, p. S158). The fear expressed here is twofold: that EU academics will return to (or be returned to) their country of origin, and that the withdrawal from the European Union will be a disincentive and/or a barrier to further recruitment from continental Europe (Mayhew, 2017; BBC Active, 2016). The fourth and final concern for Mayhew is that of the prospective negative impact for UK students of access to continental European schemes such as the Erasmus exchange programme, to modern foreign languages degrees mandating a year overseas in partner institutions, and in terms of the ability of UK learners to choose to study abroad, drawn in part because of preferential fees structures available to EU citizens (Mayhew, 2017; BBC Active, 2016). While this commentator does not discount the possibility of positive outcomes for the UK HE landscape post-Brexit, ongoing political uncertainty plus the current UK government’s positioning of students within free movement of labour considerations is seen also as problematic for the sector, the agency of individual universities to set fees and make other arrangements to make themselves more welcoming to potential overseas students notwithstanding (Mayhew, 2017; Glennie and Pinnington, 2014).
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The threat of EU withdrawal in terms of teacher recruitment in the compulsory sector is also noted, with one teacher in six being recruited from overseas, and with there being ongoing issues in filling training places within UK education, especially in the secondary sector (Grays, 2017). The additional strain already being put on existing staff and setting leadership teams due to staffing issues is noted; Brexit is seen as being unlikely to ease matters in the short term. In the longer term, though, there is hope that new agreements which are favourable to overseas teachers from beyond the EU’s borders in recruitment and in migration policy terms will be agreed to facilitate international recruitment in new ways (Grays, 2017).
A related issue is the concern that the government’s focus on Brexit as an overriding concern for the next few years will mean that domestic policies, not least those relating to education, will be side-lined, and that as a consequence the sector will suffer (NASUWT, 2018). A 2018 survey of one leading UK teachers’ union found that 41% of its members considered that Brexit would have a negative impact on education policy, with only 12% seeing that positives would emerge; over half of those polled saw that there were concerns in relation to career security for the future in education, and that Brexit was proving a distraction from the daily business of government (NASUWT, 2018). Such fears are not restricted to teaching unions, with the Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman citing similar concerns in a 2017 interview (Weale and Adams, 2017). In addition, almost half of teachers surveyed found that while “schools have an important role in preparing students for Brexit […] 54% of teachers feel unsupported in discussing Brexit with their students”; again, uncertainty over the UK’s future in Europe and of the precise nature of any Brexit deal was problematic, not least because such lack of clarity has an impact on what could be reliably taught in schools (NASUWT, 2018).
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The potential impacts of Brexit in curriculum terms are perhaps not to be overestimated either; whatever the new relationship between the UK and Europe, there will be changes mandated to teaching and learning across the National Curriculum to reflect the new political and geographic realities (Ulster University, 2017). An example may be found within the subject specialism of geography; Brexit brings with it not only a potential redrawing of boundaries, but new subject matter in terms of questions of identity, the differences between rural and urban politics, and between London, Scotland and Northern Ireland on one hand (all of whom voted to remain within the UK), and the English shires, which voted to leave the EU. Questions are therefore raised about the teaching of issues related to sovereignty, the nation state, globalisation, population mobility, as well as to migration and to different forms of identity (Kinder and Biddulph, 2017). Brexit may yet have effects, therefore, across modern languages teaching, politics and geography, history, and civics-related subject areas, as well as impacting on the delivery of British Values and in SMSC (spiritual, moral, social and cultural) cross-curricular provision (HM Government, 2014).
While changes as a result of momentous historical and political events are part of curricular updating, and as such are inevitable to some degree, the ongoing uncertainty about the shape of proposals may make both teaching and learning in these Brexit-related areas difficult in the near future, potentially confusing to learners, and problematic with respect to continuity of learning. Nevertheless, some commentators see that there are positives to be had, not least in the attractiveness of the UK in international terms to new HE markets, in part caused by the weakening of the pound in global financial markets post-referendum (Kennedy, 2017). While there is perhaps cause for optimism in the HE sector, other concerns are raised in compulsory schooling in respect to pupil behaviour and the potential for intolerance and extremist behaviour to be fuelled by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. School leadership commentators see that the next year or two may well be problematic for head teachers as there will be an increasing need for them to be vigilant so that a UK withdrawal does not signal to some a move away from inclusionary and multiculturalist thinking and towards isolationism, populism, and towards racism towards others (Dunford, 2016). The same author sees that teaching will become both more difficult in these contexts and less attractive to potential teachers as a consequence, and the combined effects of Brexit across the structure, the form, and the experience of UK schools will prove to be a disincentive to both established educators and to those who might have considered a career in education (Dunford, 2016).
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This essay has worked to outline a number of potential effects of the UK’s referendum decision to leave the European Union. International effects are perhaps most-readily identifiable in terms of higher education, with recruitment both of staff and of learners threatened, and with there being issues in terms of access to EU funding streams, and for the restriction of opportunities to current students who might have studied abroad. In compulsory educational contexts, there are recruitment concerns, too, and there are also issues predicted in terms of the articulation of Brexit and its ramifications into curricular aspects of teaching and learning. The focus on questions of identity, sovereignty and nationhood as articulated through Brexit-related negotiations are seen as potential flashpoints for extremists, for racist and other intolerant forms of behaviour within schools which may be a further detriment to the sector. Finally, a UK governmental focus on the mechanics of withdrawal is seen widely as a distraction from the usual business of government, which means that education as a sector will inevitably be downgraded in the attentions of both parliament and the executive; this can only be to the detriment of the education sector, and to those who work and study within it.
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NASUWT (2018) Teachers concerned about impact of Brexit on education, Nasuwt.org.uk. Available at: https://www.nasuwt.org.uk/article-listing/teachers-concerned-impact-of-brexit-on-education.html (Accessed: 22 June 2018).
Uberoi, E. (2016) European Union Referendum 2016, Researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk. Available at: http://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-7639/CBP-7639.pdf (Accessed: 22 June 2018).
Ulster University (2017) Impact of Brexit on education in Northern Ireland, Ulster University. Available at: https://www.ulster.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/179423/Impact-of-Brexit-in-education-in-NI.pdf (Accessed: 22 June 2018).
Weale, S. and Adams, R. (2017) Brexit may pull political focus from education, says new Ofsted chief, the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/jan/09/brexit-political-focus-education-ofsted-chief-amanda-spielman-schools (Accessed: 22 June 2018).
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