In cooperation with EAEA

Adult Learning and Education after Brexit: Plus ça Change?

Speakers’ Corner. How different will things really be for Adult Learning and Education in the UK after Brexit, asks Alex Stevenson.


The impact of Brexit on Adult Learning and Education (ALE) barely featured in the UK’s debate over its future relationship with the European Union. That reflects bigger issues dominating the discussions, such as the single market, customs union and freedom of movement. It’s perhaps also something all too familiar in the national policy landscape.

On the front line, meanwhile, providers have experienced a degree of uncertainty, not least among practitioners concerned for the future of EU colleagues working in the UK adult education sector.

But how different will things really be for ALE in the UK after Brexit?

ONE IMMINENT IMPACT is the loss of the Erasmus+ programme. The UK government’s decision not to participate will mean fewer opportunities for exchange and collaboration in adult learning, though Erasmus+ has not always worked perfectly for UK adult education providers.

Whilst the programme attracted civil society adult education organisations, the low funding rates and administrative burden meant that many larger adult providers chose not to participate.

The UK government’s replacement programme, the Turing Scheme, offers no equivalent activity for collaboration between adult education professionals.

In contrast to some European countries, ALE is not wholly dependent on EU project funding.

Meanwhile, the Welsh government has announced its own international learning exchange programme from 2022. Encouragingly, this includes opportunities for the adult education workforce. Other UK nations may yet follow the Welsh example, but for now, there is a necessity to find new ways for adult education providers to share practice and collaborate with peers in EU countries.

What about the funding for ALE? The UK has established programmes of funding for adult learning, such as England’s Adult Education Budget, albeit greatly reduced over the past decade. In contrast to some European countries, ALE is not wholly dependent on EU project funding, so this ensures a degree of continuity of provision for adult learners.

However, the full financial impact is not yet known. There are big questions about replacing the £4.3 billion investment from the European Social Fund after 2023. It’s hard to determine exactly how much ESF is spent on ALE, but in the current programme there are at least 148 projects, worth over £428m, in the ‘enhancing equal access to lifelong learning’ category.

The UK government has committed to a new UK Shared Prosperity Fund, intended to replace European structural and social investment to the equivalent value and with simplified processes. Due to launch in 2022, the objectives and operational detail are yet to emerge.

What is clear is that there is a need to ensure that opportunities for adult learning programmes are retained in the new fund, and that it is aligned to complement other learning provision and employment support for adults.

SO WHAT ABOUT the impact on policy? Here, and in part due to the relative strengths of existing ALE programmes and infrastructure, the European policy agenda has historically been a marginal influence on policy and practice in the UK.

Adult education and skills policy is in any case devolved to the four UK nations and increasingly to major cities in England. Yet Brexit has seen a something of a revival in adult learning and skills in national policy making, as the government seeks to counter issues such as skills shortages exacerbated by the end of free movement.

Brexit means there is a need for more collaboration, more investment and more joined-up policymaking in ALE.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced a new Lifetime Skills Guarantee, which the government says will give up to 11m adults the opportunity to gain new skills and qualifications for free.

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic, as well as longer term structural issues, make such policies more of a necessity – but ALE, or labour market orientated ALE at least, is firmly on the agenda post-Brexit, and this is something to be welcomed.

There is much more to do to develop the new skills policies into a strategic, comprehensive and broad-based programme of adult learning and education, including community-based and non-formal learning.

Brexit means there is a need for more collaboration, more investment and more joined-up policymaking in ALE. So perhaps a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.