As Britain hurtles towards the increasing likelihood of a no deal exit from Europe, and the uncertain future that represents, the Leader is hearing from those within our community. In the first of a daily series of opinions in the countdown to Brexit, Jamie Bowman speaks to the chief executive of Coleg Cambria, David Jones...

AT the start of this year, university leaders from across the UK wrote to politicians and government to warn of the risks for research, staff and students if we leave the EU without a deal.

In an open letter to MPs, Universities UK, the Russell Group, Guild HE, MillionPlus and University Alliance - which collectively represent more than 150 higher education providers across the UK - said the impact of a no deal scenario could lead to “an academic, cultural and scientific setback from which it would take decades to recover”.

According to the letter, 50,000 EU staff, 130,000 EU students and 15,000 UK students studying in Europe, would be starting the new year facing “significant uncertainty about their futures”.

“I think all the uncertainty around Brexit and the outcome of the referendum has cast a big shadow over the country,” agrees David Jones, chief executive of North East Wales’ Coleg Cambria, one of the UK’s largest colleges,with more than 7,000 full-time and 20,000 part-time students. “On a personal level I know it is worrying my children. I have four children in their 20s and they are all worried about it.

“I was someone who voted to remain. I had concerns about the EU and still do but I was clear that we needed to stay in.

“My four children have been bought up as Europeans, as have a lot of young people who have friends all over the world and it is a real concern for them when your country seems to say ‘oh by the way we’re not going to work with your countries anymore’. They were really upset by the decision.

“There are other young people who want to leave of course, but I think there has been a lot of misinformation around Brexit. A lot of young people want to stay for good reasons, but I think many of those who want to leave have been sold misinformation, especially around migration, and generally they’ve been fed fake news.”

Coleg Cambria was created in 2013 following the merger of Deeside College and Yale College, in Wrexham, and with six campuses across the region, including those at Deeside, Llysfasi and Northop, the college covers three local authority areas with a total population of almost 400,000.

The college works in partnership with more than 1,000 employers, including Airbus, JCB, Kelloggs, Kronospan, Moneypenny, UPM Shotton Paper and Village Bakery and it is this direct link with businesses that David feels is currently most at risk as we countdown to the UK’s departure.

“As a college we have a number of particular concerns when it comes to Brexit,” he continues. “We offer loads of apprenticeships here and are one of the biggest suppliers in Wales.

“For the last 10 years the Welsh Government have had European funding to boost the apprenticeship pot in Wales, but when then that goes there is a real concern that we’re going to see a big hole in the number of apprentices who can be supported.”

Airbus is the largest employer in Wales with 6,000 employees and Welsh Government support over the last 20 years has helped develop the Broughton site in Flintshire into one of the most advanced wing and aerospace manufacturing facilities in the world, and provided 4,000 high quality apprentices over the last decade.

But in a damning criticism, Airbus CEO Tom Enders recently called the UK government’s handling of Brexit a “disgrace”, warning the aerospace firm could pull out of the UK if the country crashes out of the EU without a deal.

“A lot of people associate us with Airbus and the work we do with them is certainly our most high profile relationship,” says David. “Airbus have one of Europe’s leading apprenticeship programmes and if you hear the concerns they are raising it is not scaremongering.

“I know a lot of people there and if you think about it Airbus is your archetypal European company. It is a product of the European project and if you didn’t have the EU you probably wouldn’t have the kind of multinational business it is today.

“We are worried for local businesses who we support through training and apprentices. If Brexit affects the economy in North Wales it affects us. A big part of our organisation and our ability to employ 1,400 people depends on having a strong economy.

“Our college is different because it is very employer facing and proudly so. Yes we’re about education and qualifications but what we do here is all about where it gets the student. Coleg Cambria isn’t an end place - hopefully we’re a passport to get you somewhere in your life.”

A recent collaboration between Coleg Cambria, Swansea University and Airbus has attracted high-calibre students studying for Degrees in Aeronautical and Manufacturing Engineering, with learners experiencing hands-on, practical and taught sessions at the £10 million state-of-the-art complex on Bersham Road, Wrexham, and the £3.3 million University Centre, Deeside.

Prof Cris Arnold, director of learning and teaching in Swansea University’s College of Engineering, has been closely involved in the collaboration with Airbus and Coleg Cambria over the past five years and says the interaction with a world-leading industrial partner is of great benefit.

He said: “By working closely with Airbus and Coleg Cambria we have been able to tailor our degree schemes to the current needs of industry, thereby making sure our graduates have the very latest engineering skills and understanding

“The quality and commitment of the students on the scheme is excellent and as they are embedded within industry at the same time as studying, they are able to relate the academic study to the engineering applications which allows a very good level of understanding.”

At Coleg Cambria’s Llysfasi site, agriculture courses have been delivered for nearly 100 years at the foot of the Nant Y Garth Pass and the college farm extends across about 300 hectares of lowland and upland in Pentrecelyn.

The estate’s facilities include the latest in precision machinery and livestock technology, but with uncertainty surrounding the implications of Brexit for farm support and continued access to current export markets, David sees another area of concern for the college.

“The farming industry in Wales is really worried because it is a heavily subsided sector,” he says. “Long-term I do think we need to find different ways of supporting farmers and helping them develop more sustainable futures.

“But we need to help them get there and not simply take the subsidies away. It’s like throwing someone into a pool and saying swim, when they’ve been on a life raft for the last 20 years.”

Away from Coleg Cambria, David has a number of different current external appointments, include chairing the Deeside Enterprise Zone Board, chair of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and North Wales & Wales Council member.

He is also a member of the Welsh Government’s (Brexit) European Advisory Group, the North Wales Ambition Board and a board member of the Collab Group of leading UK colleges.

“Most businesses can live with Brexit but I’ve not come across many who say it is good news,” he says. “What they all have in common is they say they cannot operate their businesses in an unsure environment.

“We need to know what the new rules are - how can you do anything if you don’t know the rules of engagement?

“There is a real worry about the cliff edge and while I appreciate Mrs May’s negotiating position, at the same time people need assurances no deal is not going to happen. I do think she has messed up the negotiations - she’s gone about it the wrong way around and triggered Article 50 far too quickly.

“Let’s be honest, this is only stage one of a lot more stages to come - people will look back on this period in years to come and they’ll be studying why it happened for centuries to come and they’ll be saying ‘how the hell did we get ourselves in that mess?’.”

Despite his criticisms of the UK’s Government, David believes the Welsh Government has impressed with its preparations for Brexit and its determination to protect the 60 per cent of Welsh exports that go to the EU.

“We represent Wales’ interests and we try to give the ministers in Cardiff the views from different parts of Wales, adds David regarding his work with the European Advisory Group. “I think the Welsh Government has dealt with Brexit really well.

“They’ve had an approach where they’ve worked closely with other parties and showed a level of maturity. I think the UK Government should have looked a little more closely at this and I don’t think we’d be in such a mess now if they had.

“Ultimately I think we let the country down with the referendum and David Cameron is culpable. He should have taken responsibility.

“In the crossfire of politics it’s normal people, communities and businesses which are really being affected.

“I think there’s a cloud over the country at the moment - throw in austerity and Brexit and when you start to have conversations with people you hear them say ‘I’m really worried about Brexit’ and that’s how I feel. I can’t see any positives at the moment.”

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