Brexit; Policy issues for Further and Higher Education

Jim Gallacher and Lucy Hunter Blackburn assess the impact of Brexit on further and higher education in Scotland;

The impact of Brexit on further education (FE) and higher education (HE) in Scotland will be complex, and the effects will be both direct and indirect. While the direct impact will be significant and will be considered below, the indirect impact of Brexit will be to emphasise the key challenges facing further and higher education in Scotland, which are not being adequately tackled by existing policies. This provides an opportunity to consider some of these key policy issues, and the challenges we must address to improve the provision of FE and HE in Scotland. We will therefore begin by considering some of these issues before returning to a consideration of the direct effects of Brexit.


Achieving fair access to FE and HE


The first big issue which we are failing to address adequately is the one of ensuring fair access to further and higher education for all students in Scotland regardless of their social and economic position. While this is a policy aim which has existed for many years, and has indeed been emphasised by the current SNP Government, the additional uncertainties created by Brexit will make it even more important that we have robust and realistic policies to achieve this aim, both for reasons of social justice, and to ensure that the talent we have in Scotland is fully utilised at times of greater uncertainty in terms of our economic future.


While the Scottish Government has agreed a target that by 2030 students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent 20% of entrants to higher education, recent data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) indicate that only 10% of 18 year olds from these areas entered full-time first degree courses in Scottish universities in 2016, although when all ages are considered the number increases to 14%.  There is also evidence from a recent Sutton Trust study that relative inequalities in access to university-level HE  continue to be greater in Scotland than in other parts of the UK. Scottish young people from the most advantaged areas are still more than four times as likely to enter university directly at 18 compared with those from the least advantaged areas.  In England, those from the most advantaged areas are 2.4 times as likely to go to university as those from the least advantaged areas, and three times as likely in Wales and Northern Ireland (Hunter Blackburn et al  2016).


This is associated with the fact that Scotland has proportionately more universities setting higher entrance requirements (higher tariff institutions) when compared with the rest of the UK, reflecting the fact that the Scottish higher education system is less institutionally diverse than other parts of the UK (a relatively higher proportion of ‘elite’ institutions, and a lower proportion of post 1992 universities). This problem has been exacerbated by the capping of student numbers in Scottish universities, as a result of which Scotland has done less to adjust supply in response to rising demand. These restrictions on numbers in HEIs in Scotland are associated with the Scottish Government’s policy of free higher education. The funding implications of this policy have restricted the options for growth within the Scottish university system[1].


Given the evidence that young people from more advantaged backgrounds are more likely to achieve higher qualifications in secondary school, they are more likely to be successful in competing for a limited number of  university places which demand relatively high entrance requirements. This raises a fundamental problem regarding the funding models for both further and higher education which are now in place. While the value of ‘free’ higher education has been emphasised with respect to lessening the problems of student debt, there is little evidence that it has in itself contributed much to addressing issues of widening access, and may indeed be creating additional barriers for students from areas of social disadvantage when compared with other parts of the UK. These issues will be discussed further when considering options for funding higher education and the potential impact of Brexit.


Policy Responses


Tackling the problems associated with remedying the inequalities in access to higher education will require significant policy responses.


  • Greater coordination between educational sectors and providers


The attainment gaps at secondary school level are well documented and underlie low level of applications to HEIs. These problems in turn reflect wider structures of inequality and differences in achievement which begin at the early years stage and in primary schools. It has been noted by both the Commission on Widening Access (COWA), and by the Scottish Government’s Independent Adviser on Poverty and Inequality (Naomi Eisenstadt) that greater co-ordination is required in tackling these issues. One significant initiative in this respect has been the Schools for Higher Education Programme (SHEP) funded by SFC which co-ordinates links between schools and HEis across Scotland through four regional programmes.


However, further work of this kind is urgently required, with a clear focus on schools in the areas where educational achievement is lowest. Bridging courses between schools and universities, and summer schools which help prepare students for university study, have also been recognised to be of value, and should be further developed. (Commissioner for Fair Access Annual Report 2017). It has also been noted by Naomi Eisenstadt and others that more resources must be provided to ensure that more effective advice and guidance is available, especially for young people whose families have little experience of educational success, and limited knowledge of the opportunities which are available. These young people are found throughout the school system.


Policy recommendation;

There should be a clearly articulated expectation for a far higher level of co-ordinated work between local authorities, schools, colleges and universities particularly, although not only, in areas of social and economic disadvantage where educational achievement is low. For too long this has been a peripheral area of work based on widening access units in universities, rather than being central to the work of all the organisations and institutions involved.


2            Providing additional places in HE


Considerable success has already been reported from an initiative which has been targeted at students from the 20% and 40% most deprived areas. This has involved the provision of additional funded places to encourage universities to recruit students from these areas. An additional 2,638.7 full-time student equivalents (ftes) were funded between 2013-14 and 2016-17. Analyses of UCAS data by Hunter Blackburn ( ) and by the Commissioner for Fair Access ( have clearly shown the impact of this scheme.  Offers to students from these areas increased to a level higher than would have been expected on the basis of their grades alone, and offers to the second most deprived quintile equalled those going to the most advantaged quintile, indicating the positive impact which additional funding of this kind can have.


However, following cuts in funding for higher education from the Scottish Government, funding for this scheme has been significantly reduced. Without this targeted funding there is a danger of a displacement effect on other students, and the ones who are most likely to suffer are not the most advantaged, whose family background and education in the highest achieving state schools or private schools will ensure the highest grades in Highers. It is rather students from the middle groups in society who will have attended schools where achievement levels are generally lower, and whose parents may have less experience of higher education. (Hunter Blackburn –


It can be noted that the impact of Brexit could provide additional funding to increase the number of university places for Scottish students. This is because Scotland is currently required to provide ‘free’ higher education for around 14,000 EU students who study in Scottish HEIs at a cost of around £100 million per annum. If the UK ceases to be a member of the EU Scotland will no longer have this obligation, and this funding could be used to increase funding for Scottish domiciled students.


Policy recommendation;

The need to continue to provide ring-fenced additional funding for places for students from the most disadvantaged areas should be recognised as a policy priority. Funding which may be saved post Brexit, when there is no longer an obligation to provide free education for EU students should be ring fenced to support this policy.


3            Contextualised admissions and access thresholds


Alongside a targeted additional places scheme all universities should be expected to introduce access thresholds for all degrees. These would set the minimum entry requirements necessary to ensure that students on degree programmes are likely to be successful, and in many cases they would differ from the higher standard tariffs which are used in the admissions process. These access thresholds would be applied to students from the more deprived backgrounds. This would be associated with contextualised admissions procedures. These would take account of the social and cultural contexts of students from different backgrounds, and the impact that this can have on achievements in school. Many students from these backgrounds with lower levels of school achievement often emerge as very successful university students.


The value of initiatives of this kind has been recognised by the Commission for Widening Access, and has been demonstrated by work undertaken through the Reach, a national project designed to assist students from schools with low progression to higher education to enter degrees in the professions such as medicine, dentistry, veterinary science and law. Research into the impact of this programme in Glasgow University has shown the completion and continuation rates for student enrolled through this programme are similar to those for all students.  Research by Boliver and her associates has also shown the value of this approach (


Policy recommendation;

All HEIs should be expected to establish a combination of access thresholds and contextualised admissions will enable them to recruit more students from disadvantaged background. These should be substantial programmes which can be shown to have significant impacts on patterns of participation across the university sector. However it is clear that for policies of this kind to be successful additional funding must be available, and this must be on a scale to avoid the displacement effects on the ‘squeezed middle’ which we have referred to above.


4            Improved articulation between colleges and universities


The college sector now plays an increasingly important role in widening access in Scotland. Higher education is an important aspect of college provision. About 22% of all undergraduate level students in Scotland study in colleges, and most are on Higher National Certificates (HNCs) and Higher National Diplomas (HNDs). Many of these students now use their HNC/Ds to enable them to progress to degree level study in the universities through ‘articulation’ arrangements which have become a key aspect of higher education policy. A high proportion of these students come from areas of social deprivation. The recent Sutton Trust study estimates that ninety per cent of the overall growth in higher education participation for the most disadvantaged in Scotland since 2006 has been due to increased entry into college level higher education ( ).


However, while colleges make an important contribution to widening access, there is also evidence that the progression opportunities open to these students are very skewed. In 2014-15 71% of these students gained entry to the post 92 universities, while only 7% entered the more prestigious ‘ancient’ universities, where the majority of students come from more socially advantaged backgrounds. This can limit the range of degree courses which are open to articulating students. Furthermore less than half of all articulating  students (45%) gained full credit for their HNC/Ds with most of the others having to return to first year in university and take five or six years to gain their degrees. A further set of problems with the HN route to degree study is the evidence that a number of students experience difficulties with the transition to university. This is associated with a number of issues, including differences between the curricula on the HN programmes and the first or second year of university, and differences in approaches to learning, teaching and assessment.


Underlying a number of these problems is the situation in which the HNC/Ds were originally established to provide vocational education and training, often for people who were already in work and studying part-time. Over the years this situation has changed and HNC/Ds are no longer a homogeneous set of qualifications. Some are still primarily vocational qualifications, which enable progression directly to employment, while others can be seen as primarily transitional qualifications enabling progression to degree level study. A number of initiatives have been taken by the SFC to improve articulation arrangements, including the establishment of ‘articulation hubs’ linking colleges and universities, and the provision of additional places in colleges and universities to encourage articulation. However, these can be seen as ‘palliative’ rather than recognising that a significant measure of restructuring may now be required, involving new kinds of co-operation between colleges, universities and SQA. This can build on what has already been achieved, but move it forward to achieve new forms of cooperation.


The current arrangements maintain a system which cannot be justified on the grounds of social equity and justice, and is also inefficient and costly. The impact of Brexit will reinforce the need to address these issues, both because of the further demands on public funding at a time of greater economic instability, and the need to ensure that students are appropriately educated and trained for a more uncertain future for the UK economy. These challenges have been recognised by the Commission on Widening Access in a number of its recommendations. In particular in Recommendation 10 the Commission recognises the need to move beyond existing practices, proposing that:

  • The SFC , working with HEIs and colleges, should explore more efficient, flexible and learner centred models of articulation which provide learners with the choice of a broader range of institutions and courses. (Commission on Widening Access 2016 p35)


Professor Peter Scott, Scotland’s Commissioner for Fair Access, has also recommended that ‘universities should commit to substantially increasing the proportion of transferring HN students admitted with full credit (to at least the 75% benchmark identified by the SFC)…’ (Commissioner for Fair Access Annual Report 2017, Recommendation 15)


Policy recommendation;

The SFC, the universities, the colleges and SQA should be directed to engage in new forms of collaboration to ensure that articulation arrangements are in place which meet the needs of students, the wider society and the economy in more appropriate and effective ways on grounds of social justice, efficiency and the longer term benefits to the UK economy.


5            Funding support for students

Funding available for student grants was reduced by just over one third in 2013/14, while increased funding was provided for student loans. While the Scottish Government has guaranteed an income level of £7,625 to support student living costs for those from families with the lowest incomes, £5,750 of this now comes in the form of a loan. Students’ average annual borrowing for loans is lower than in Wales and Northern Ireland (because of the absence of tuition fees), but when the impact of the four year degree is taken into account, final student debt in Scotland is now predicted to be similar across the devolved nations, but higher for students from low income families who take out the highest levels of loans.


Overall then it would now appear that the net effect of abolishing the graduate endowment, the reduction in grants and the increased use of loans for student maintenance is a transfer of resources from students from low income families to those from higher income families. This is clearly not an equitable policy, but it is one which the SNP have been able to maintain because of their emphasis on the value of ‘free’ higher education. However, as noted above, inequalities in access to higher education remain persistent, and it is young people from the most advantaged families who are gaining most from current funding arrangements.


Policy recommendation;

There is an urgent need to reconsider the approach to student support in Scotland to ensure that students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds receive the financial support which will encourage them to enter higher education, and persist with their studies, without facing the highest debt levels.





Supporting the work of Scotland’s Colleges


The role of the college sector in helping to educate and train the highly skilled labour force which is so important in knowledge based economies has long been recognised. It is likely that this will become even more important as Britain competes in new markets, and cannot rely on the many highly skilled workers who have come from countries within the EU (the impact of Brexit is already being felt in this respect). The Scottish Government in its recent Letter of Guidance to the SFC has suggested that ‘colleges are at the centre of our efforts to build the workforce Scotland’s employers and economy need’ (Scottish Government 2016).  Their important role in widening access to further and higher education has also been noted.


However despite this the Scottish Government imposed significant cuts in funding to this sector from 2010/11 to 2014/15. During this period Audit Scotland has noted that funding to the colleges decreased by 18% and, while there has been a modest increase in funding in recent years, the earlier cuts have not been restored. As a result of these cuts, and a greater emphasis on full-time courses, the number of students enrolled in colleges fell between 2010/11 and 2015/16 by 26% from 336,58 to 249,304. Overall the decline in student numbers in the colleges over 10 years or more has impacted more on FE level students who were 87% of the total in 2005/6 but 80% in 2015/16, and on part-time students who declined from 83% of the total to 69% over the same time period.  Recent government policy also encouraged colleges to place a greater emphasis on younger students in the 16-24 age group, associated with its focus on youth employment. As a result there has been a significant fall in the numbers of students aged 25 and over, from 55% of the college population in 2005-06 to 43% in 2015-16[2].


The decision of the Scottish Government to expect colleges to move from local bargaining to national bargaining of pay and terms and conditions, has placed additional pressures on college budgets. A national framework for salaries and terms and conditions has been agreed in 2017, but the Scottish Government has only provided limited funding to cover the associated costs. Colleges Scotland (the national body representing the college sector) has estimated that implementing this will cost the college sector around £80 million pounds over three years.


As a result of all of these pressures it is expected that many colleges could well face very significant financial pressures and deficits over the next few years. In this context it seems likely that colleges will struggle to return to providing part-time opportunities for adult students who will need retraining and other forms of lifelong learning.


Policy recommendation;

If the college sector is to continue to play the important role which it has in Scottish education, training and lifelong learning, the impact of cuts and Government policy on the long term stability of this sector must be recognised, and a more sustainable funding model established.


Developing skills in the post Brexit world: the role of colleges


The changing profile of the student population in Scotland’s Colleges has been noted above. Associated with these changes we can see that colleges are now less involved in providing vocational education and training which leads directly to employment, but provide transitional qualifications for many of their students. SFC data on qualifiers’ destinations indicate that for the 2014/15 cohort of qualifiers only 14% progressed to employment while 69% progressed to some form of further study. This will include progression to further study within the college sector, and progression from HNC/Ds to degrees in universities. It would appear then that colleges have been changing their function and role to some extent over the years. This reflects changes in the labour market in the UK, the expansion of higher education and the growing demand for degree level qualifications.


Given all these changes in the college sector there is a need to reconsider its role in developing the skills agenda, and consider how this role can be developed in ways most appropriate to the changing economic and educational context, and the additional challenges posed by Brexit. The Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young workforce which was established by the Scottish Government had recommended in its report (Education Working for All) that colleges ‘…working closely with industry should ensure that a college education provides skills and qualifications relevant to the market requirements…’. This was then reflected in the Governments response to this report.


However, the Institute for Public Policy Research  (IPPR) in a recent report has suggested that there is a ‘large and worrying mismatch between the skills system and labour market demands’. This point has been picked up by Naomi Eistenstadt in her recent report to the First Minister, where she recommends that there is a need for more systematic engagement between employers, schools and colleges in responding to skills shortages. She also recommends that more should be done to value non-academic routes post school.


There is now a need to reconsider the most effective ways in which colleges can contribute to vocational education and training in the 21st century. One important issue in this respect is their contribution to apprenticeships. In recent years there has been a renewed interest in apprenticeships and there are currently over 37,000 enrolled on apprenticeship programmes in Scotland. However just under 8% of all starts were delivered through direct contracts with colleges. The others involved other types of training providers, although in a number of cases they will sub-contract part of the of-the-job training to colleges, and this increases colleges’ involvement in apprenticeship programmes.


Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQs) underpin these qualifications, and in 2015/16 5% of college students were studying for an SVQ level 3 and a further 3% for the lower SVQ Level 2. The number of college students on apprenticeship programmes in part reflects policy and funding decisions of Skills Development Scotland (SDS).  The Scottish Government, through its Enterprise and Skills Review, is encouraging greater co-operation between the various agencies responsible for skills development in Scotland, and in this context it will be important that SDS and the college sector work together to consider how college provision can be shaped to make the most effective contribution to skills development.


A new initiative in this respect is the establishment of Graduate Level Apprenticeships (GLAs) to provide new ways into degree level study for people who are employed. This is seen as an important way of developing the high level vocational qualifications which are needed in a 21st century economy. At present 19 of these courses have been established involving 7 universities, but only one college. Given the extent of higher education provision which already exists in the colleges, and the key role which the vocationally oriented HNC/Ds continue to have in this provision, there is the potential to enhance the role of colleges in providing high level vocational education and training and establish new forms of collaboration with university partners. It has been noted above that many HNC/Ds can now be seen as having a main function in providing transition to degree level study, but it also continues to be the case that many have an important role in vocational education for those already in the labour market. The development of these GLAs can help strengthen the vocational role of HNDs in appropriate cases. Along with the policy initiatives to strengthen articulation arrangements advocated above, this can help to clarify the different types of higher education qualifications provided by colleges and would be of considerable benefit to students and the wider society.


Policy recommendation.;

There is a need to clarify how colleges can make the most effective contribution to vocational education and training, given the changing nature of tertiary education and the labour market. This will include addressing issues associated mismatches between the skills system and the demands of the labour market and the need to strengthen relationships with employers.


Learning through the life course and in-work training


Recent policy has tended to place a greater focus on education and training for young people, and part-time education for those in work has been on the decline in both colleges and universities. However, despite the decline in emphasis on lifelong learning as a policy agenda in the earlier years of the 21century, the importance of learning through the life course has been recognised in both policy and research, as has been demonstrated in the UK Government’s Foresight project on the Future of Skills and Lifelong Learning. Provision of this kind is important in providing second chances to learn for many adult students.


Community based learning, often linked to college based provision has been important here, but has suffered from funding cuts. Although the policy which placed more emphasis on young people in colleges has now been reversed the opportunities for adult learners has been reduced over the last few years, and this has had particular disadvantages for those from areas of social and economic deprivation. The renewed interest in lifelong learning has also been associated with the recognition that people need to continuously adapt their skills and competencies whilst acquiring new skills to cope with changes in demography and labour markets. The impact of Brexit is likely to increase demands of this kind.


Policy recommendation;

There is a need for renewed investment in opportunities for lifelong learning. This will include second chance provision for adult returners and the development of more flexible learning opportunities, which will also involve greater co-operation between employers and educational institutions.


Funding further and higher education.


The need for more adequate funding for further and higher education has been recognised in the policy recommendations outlined above. It has also been suggested that the policy of ‘free’ higher education introduced by the SNP Government in 2007 has in some respects exacerbated problems associated with achieving fair access to higher education and providing adequate funding for further education. The decision of the Labour Party at a UK level to support the abolition of university fees in England adds a further dimension to this debate over the most appropriate ways to fund higher education.


While there are strong arguments from a universalist position which support the idea of the abolition of student fees, it must also be recognised that those who profit most are young people from more advantaged families who continue to be the largest group in the universities. Furthermore many will go on to occupations which will provide higher lifetime earnings and better pension prospects than their non-graduate peers. In this respect ‘free’ higher education can be seen as a regressive policy. Furthermore if it contributes to a situation where funding is reduced in areas which might promote fair access, such as further education and student grants, it can be argued that this points to the need for taxation policies which can contribute to more equitable outcomes. There are various options here which include increases in general taxation, targeted at higher earners, and the more financially privileged, or some level of fee, perhaps deferred, and paid back in line with earnings. While a specific graduate tax is sometimes is often identified as an answer it raises its own difficulties, and to our knowledge has never been successfully implemented in any system.


Policy recommendation;

There is now an urgent need to consider options for the most equitable way to fund higher education. These could include some kind of deferred fee payment, possibly combined with means testing, or increases in general taxation, targeted at higher earners. Work should be undertaken in order to recommend the best option to inform future policy.


The direct impact of Brexit on further and higher education


The direct impact of Brexit is likely to have greater consequences for higher education institutions (HEIs) than for the college sector. At present the Scottish HEI sector has a very strong international profile, which is in many ways quite disproportionate to the size of the population. There are four Scottish universities in the world top 200 in the QS Rankings (University of Edinburgh, University of Glasgow, University of St Andrews and University of Aberdeen).


An important element in achieving this success is research excellence, and research impact. Funding from the EU and collaboration with universities from across Europe in EU programmes has made a vital contribution to this success. The Framework 7 programme contributed £638m of research funding to Scottish universities between 2007 and 2013, and in 2013-14 alone £85m came to these institutions from EU sources. This represented 13% of total research funding. The opportunities to collaborate with partners across Europe are also of great significance, and it is estimated that international research is 1.4 times more impactful than national research.


The opportunities for Scottish HEIs to attract staff from other EU countries are also of considerable importance. Around 4500 staff, representing 16% of all academic staff come from EU countries. These colleagues make an important contribution to enriching the academic communities in which they work. The flow of students to and from the EU is now another important aspect of the Scottish higher education system. About 14,000 EU students study in Scottish universities, with around 8% of undergraduates coming from EU countries. (However, it must be noted that this involves a cost to the Scottish Government of around £100m as a result of the policy of ‘free’ higher education. This funding would be saved post Brexit).


In addition around 1600 students from Scottish HEIs participated in the ERASMUS programme which enabled them to study in European universities. While EU funding and student transfers were less significant in the college sector, more than £20m per annum has gone to this sector from the European Social Fund (ESF). It is recognised by all Parties that in a post-Brexit situation it will be important to remain part of these funding programmes and to continue to provide opportunities for staff and student mobility. The arrangements which the EFTA countries have might provide a basis to agree on a new partnership with the EU countries around these issues. There would clearly be financial costs to the UK, but it seems essential that these should be borne, given the consequences of losing these relationships and the funding which goes with them.




This paper has recognised the potentially serious direct impact which Brexit may have on higher education (and to a lesser extent further education) in Scotland. However it has also been argued that there can be serious implications in that Brexit will highlight and worsen problems which already existed in Scottish further and higher education and which are not being adequately addressed. Some policy options are outlined to address these problems. It is also recognised that there is an important underlying issue of how further and higher education can be funded in a way which will adequately meet the needs of students in both sectors, while being equitable and progressive. This last issue also reflects on wider issues in the UK Labour Party, and it is suggested that further work will be required to resolve it.


Jim Gallacher & Lucy Hunter Blackburn

December 2017





Jim Gallacher is Emeritus Professor of Lifelong Learning at Glasgow Caledonian University. Recent and current research interests include widening access to further and higher education; and links between further and higher education; work related higher education. His most recent book is New languages and landscapes of higher education, co-edited with Peter Scott and Gareth Parry, Oxford University Press 2017.


Lucy Hunter Blackburn is an ESRC-funded postgraduate research student at the University of Edinburgh, specialising in student funding, particularly cross-UK comparisons of student debt.  She previously worked as a senior civil servant in the Scottish Government, including a period as Head of Higher Education and Student Support.  Before starting her PhD she established a successful blog on higher education policy,, and has been published widely, mainly on student finance and access, by specialist organisations and in the media.  In November 2017, she was awarded WonkHe’s Wonk of the Year.





[1] Although it can be noted that the number of Scottish domiciled students gaining access to a Scottish university increased in 2017, this seems to have been associated with a decline in the offers which have been made to EU students (Hunter Blackburn –

[2] However, it can be noted that the Government’s most recent letter of guidance (October 2017) indicates that colleges are no longer required to prioritise full-time provision for 16-24 year olds.