Vince Cable: loss of polytechnics was a mistake

The conversion of polytechnics into universities has been lamented as a “poor decision” by the business secretary

March 5, 2015

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.

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Viewed

Most Commented

Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford will host a homeopathy conference next month

Charity says Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford is ‘naive’ to hire out its premises for event

women leapfrog. Vintage

Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O’Gorman offer advice on climbing the career ladder

Woman pulling blind down over an eye
Liz Morrish reflects on why she chose to tackle the failings of the neoliberal academy from the outside
White cliffs of Dover

From Australia to Singapore, David Matthews and John Elmes weigh the pros and cons of likely destinations

Mitch Blunt illustration (23 March 2017)

Without more conservative perspectives in the academy, lawmakers will increasingly ignore and potentially defund social science, says Musa al-Gharbi