Northern Ireland is set to be excluded from a new multi-million euro scheme aimed at young people not in any kind of employment, education, or training across Europe because of Brexit.
The Erasmus-like ALMA project (Aim, Learn, Master, Achieve), with an estimated investment of €15 million in its first year alone, was unveiled by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her 2021 State of the Union address.
The scheme is aimed at helping young people find their way into the job market through education, vocational training, or employment in their home country, as well as a work placement in another EU country.
However, eligible candidates in Northern Ireland will not avail of the scheme because the UK Government has signalled its intention not to participate in the relevant new round of EU structural funds.
This is despite Northern Ireland having a significantly higher ratio of young people aged 16 to 24 years not in education, employment, or training (NEETs) than any region of the UK. Latest figures show that Northern Ireland has an estimated 24,000 NEETs, a 12.2 per cent portion of all those aged 16 to 24 years. By comparison, the overall proportion of young people who were NEET in the UK was 8.9 per cent.
Emerging labour market trends in Northern Ireland indicate a reducing employment rate, rising unemployment, higher levels of economic inactivity and a legacy of underinvestment in skills by both the public and private sectors have been attributed to persistent and long-standing challenges of a low productivity rate when compared to the rest of the UK, highest levels of economic inactivity of any UK region and a mid-level skills gap.
In 2020, the OECD compiled an extensive report on skills in Northern Ireland to inform the Department for the Economy’s forthcoming Skills Strategy. The report highlighted that skill levels of adults in Northern Ireland are below those of many other OECD countries, reasoning that the challenges were “rooted in poor governance arrangements across policy areas and levels of government”.
Additional sub-regional research indicated that each of Northern Ireland’s five sub-regions contained a “missing middle” – a lack of those with qualifications between National Qualification Framework (NQF) levels 3–5, forecast to enter the labour market in the decade from 2017 to 2027.
The ALMA project will form part of the EU’s European Social Fund+ (ESF+), the EU’s main instrument for investing in people, with a budget of almost €99.3 billion for 2021 to 2027. The UK Government opted not to take on the option of associate membership of the new round of structural funds.
As a member state of the EU, the UK had been eligible for financial support from the European Regional Development Fund (EDRF) and the European Social Fund (ESF). Between 2014 and 2020 the UK drew down €5.1 billion through the ESF. Projects eligible for funding did not have to be completed by 2020 and under the terms of the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement, the UK is eligible for its full allocation of funds from the 2014-2020 budget cycle and funding claims can be submitted until the end of 2023. However, the UK cannot apply for any further funds in future years.
A spokesperson for the Department for the Economy confirmed that this will also apply to Northern Ireland: “Following the UK’s exit from the EU in January 2020, while existing programmes such as the ESF Programme continue here until their normal closure (in 2023), the UK will not take part in the new round of structural funds.
“ALMA, which was announced by the EU in September, is part of the ESF successor programme to be known as ESF+, which the UK will not be involved in.
“ALMA, which was announced by the EU in September, is part of the ESF successor programme to be known as ESF+, which the UK will not be involved in.”
“The UK Government previously announced that the UK Shared Prosperity Fund would be its successor to EU structural funds. Further details on priorities and eligibility are expected from the UK Government in late October 2021.”
The ALMA scheme is the latest consequence of Brexit to impact on young people in Northern Ireland. In March 2021, the Irish Government was forced to step in and fund the continued involvement of students from Northern Ireland in the Erasmus+ programme after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson took the “tough decision” not to participate in the new scheme.
The long-established EU programme funds students’ study across member states and in 2019 alone, almost 650 students and staff from Northern Ireland took part.
In its place, the UK has launched the Turing Scheme, which will seek to be more expansive in its opportunities for students by including universities beyond Europe. However, critics have highlighted that it will not fund inward studies.
Unlike with the EU’s structural funds, the UK did opt for associate membership of the forthcoming Horizon Europe project within the EU exit deal, however, its inclusion has still not been ratified almost a year after the scheme was launched.
Horizon 2020 was the biggest EU research and innovation programme ever and provided almost €80 billion of funding over seven years from 2014 to 2020.
The scheme, which funds ground-breaking work in areas such as cancer research and climate change, was utilised by almost 300 Northern Ireland participants and almost €100 million had been drawn down by October 2020.
The programme has been refreshed as Horizon Europe for the years 2021 to 2027 with a budget of almost €100 billion.
The UK has agreed in principle to participate in the programme under the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with a “fair and appropriate financial contribution”. However, association is subject to ratification.
At the end of October, the UK’s Brexit negotiator David Frost announced the Government was “quite concerned” that the EU had still not ratified the UK’s associate membership of Horizon Europe. Stating that failure to deliver on the obligation would be a breach of the treaty, Frost said: “Every day’s delay is a further day UK entities can not participate.”
The EU Commission has published the main work programme of Horizon Europe for the period 2021/2022, which outlines the objectives and specific topic areas that will receive a total of €14.7 billion. Despite the absence of ratification of involvement, the Department for the Economy is encouraging businesses and researchers to prepare to bid into Horizon Europe.