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A report produced by a forum of Scotland’s colleges highlights potential challenges for the sector in the wake of the UK’s exit from the EU.

It comes ahead of a second College and University Brexit Summit to be hosted by the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, Richard Lochhead this Thursday 30 May, to discuss how institutions and other organisations can collectively address the challenges arising from the UK’s expected departure from the EU.

The report lists demographic changes, loss of EU funding, and the potential loss of skilled and unskilled EU nationals from the sector as challenges but, given its role as a key provider in the skills training system, highlights how colleges are well-placed to respond to emerging skills gaps.

According to SPICe analysis of 2015 ONS data ‘EU Nationals Living in Scotland’, indications are that sectors most likely at risk include (but are not limited to) service sectors: hospitality and tourism, public administration, finance, health and social care and retail, as well as construction, agriculture and manufacturing.

Almost a third of EU nationals in employment in Scotland in 2015 (33,000) were working in the distribution, hotels and restaurant sector. The Scottish economy is heavily reliant on these areas, particularly in remote and rural locations as well as in Edinburgh.

Replacing experienced and trained staff from a range of critical industries from a contracted pool of talent will present a unique test of the college sector’s ability to adapt and flex its offer in order to continue meeting the needs of individuals, communities and businesses throughout and beyond the transition process.

Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science Richard Lochhead said: “We know Scotland faces challenging demographics and skills gaps in the existing workforce that will be exacerbated by leaving the EU, particularly in sectors where there is a high percentage of EU nationals in the workforce.  We have already seen how the continued uncertainty around the UK’s relationship with the EU has led to the employment of EU nationals falling in the past year.  

“Addressing these challenges and maintaining our strong research and teaching links with Europe will require our colleges and universities to work closer together to shape an education landscape that can continue to re-tool today’s workforce and train tomorrow’s.

“That’s why I have called this week’s Brexit Summit, to bring Scotland’s Further and Higher Education sectors together to discuss how we respond to these additional challenges that leaving the EU would bring.”

SFC Chief Executive Karen Watt said: “There’s no doubt Brexit will test the sector’s ability to adapt and overcome multiple challenges, from the emerging skills gaps to the loss of Erasmus+ funding and opportunities for students to study and gain overseas life experience.

We’ve met extensively with the college sector over the past nine months to understand their concerns and how they’re planning to respond. It’s been very encouraging to see colleges being proactive about how they will adapt to these challenges in their local area.”

Shona Struthers, Colleges Scotland’s Chief Executive, said: “The college sector in Scotland has consistently enunciated concerns over the implications of Brexit on our society and economy, however, we also recognise that colleges’ agility and capacity to respond quickly and nimbly to difficult situations can be used to fill the anticipated skills shortages many sectors are facing.

“The College Brexit Forum is extremely useful in bringing the right organisations around the table to discuss and plan how to mitigate skills gaps as well as the loss of EU funding programmes and life-changing opportunities from Erasmus+.”

This week’s summit in Edinburgh will build on the previous summit held at the University of Glasgow last November.

Targeted at both colleges and universities, the summit will focus not only on practical ways in which institutions might rise to the challenge of addressing potential skills gaps in Scotland’s economy, but also how they might continue to work in partnership with EU colleagues and enable continuing opportunities for students and staff following the UK’s departure from the EU.