Mr Cable told the Association of Colleges’ annual higher education conference, held on 4 March, that the UK suffered from a lack of higher level and specialised apprenticeships.
“This goes back to…a very poor set of decisions in past generations to get rid of the polytechnics, because they performed a very important role,” Mr Cable said.
“Their disappearance and assimilation into universities has meant that there is nothing in the UK economy [like that] found in many continental European countries, where very high-level vocational skill training is provided.”
Mr Cable told the conference that the government was trying to plug this gap with the creation of national colleges, covering areas such as advanced manufacturing, several of which have developed out of further education colleges.
The minister said that meeting demand for higher level vocational skills, up to degree level, would be a key priority for English colleges, but acknowledged that this would take place against a “financially constrained” backdrop.
Mr Cable revealed that, when he came into office in 2010 and faced a 25 per cent cut in the budget for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, he had been advised to reduce funding for the further education and adult skills sectors by approximately 40 per cent. This was on the grounds that they were “less likely to notice than universities”, he said.
“I made the decision to disregard this advice,” Mr Cable said. “The consequence was that most of the political pain was inflicted on universities, with consequences that we have seen reverberating to this day.”
Mr Cable contrasted the situation in England with Scotland, where, he claimed, college budgets had been raided to subsidise university students. Refusal to introduce tuition fees in Scotland had also led to a “gradual dilution of quality in the HE sector”, he added.
“That partly explains why I wasn’t willing to go down that route,” Mr Cable said. “Those of you who have doubts about the way we operate here might want to go north of the border and see the way they have done it.”
Mr Cable concluded by stating that cuts would continue in the next parliament but argued that spending on skills was not a “luxury” and “should have overriding priority beyond many of those areas of public spending which are currently regarded as sacrosanct”.
Other speakers at the event included Madeleine Atkins, the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, who announced a £2.75 million grant for the AoC.
This will be used to improve scholarship in further education colleges that offer higher education courses, including collaboration with employers to ensure that up-to-date industry knowledge is being passed on to students.