Nearly all Conservative ministers privately concede that their policy on overseas students is “seriously damaging” to universities and the UK economy, according to the former business secretary, Sir Vince Cable.
The claim comes in a book by Sir Vince to be published this week, titled After the Storm: the World Economy and Britain’s Economic Future.
The former Twickenham MP also says in the book that prior to the 2015 election he had secured an agreement with Danny Alexander, the former chief secretary to the Treasury, to protect higher education and research funding should a second coalition government be formed.
Although the book looks back to his time in government – when he was the Cabinet minister responsible for the tuition fees policy that so damaged the Liberal Democrats – it focuses on economic rather than political issues and largely steers clear of the fees controversy.
In one brief reference, Sir Vince refers to the view having prevailed among Lib Dems prior to the 2010 election that “talk of cuts repelled voters, while spending commitments attracted them, and this led us into the disaster of the tuition fees pledge, among others”.
He describes the coalition’s trebling of fees as “unpopular but necessary”.
Sir Vince recalls that although he had “difficult exchanges with the home secretary [Theresa May] and prime minister over immigration controls on non-European Union students and skilled workers, almost all Conservative colleagues and ministers agreed, at least privately, that their policies were seriously damaging to business, universities and the wider national economic interest”.
He adds that he was “struck by the inability of powerful Conservatives like the chancellor, or even the prime minister, to move the home secretary an inch”.
On funding for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Sir Vince says: “I had obtained from Danny Alexander a commitment, reflected in the party manifesto, that in the event of a second coalition government being formed, we would protect my department’s growth priorities – training, further and higher education, science and innovation, industrial strategy – in a new spending review.
“Sadly this protection will not be given by the new government, which plans further cuts of 25-40 per cent.”
Elsewhere, he says that there is “one legacy of both the coalition government and its Labour predecessor that, I worry, is neither sustainable nor very useful. That is the belief that it is economically as well as socially valuable to open up university education to everyone who meets fairly minimal standards, and to provide them with tuition fee loans.”
He continues: “My primary concern is that, in a world of scarce resources and tight public spending, the creation of graduate factories diverts attention from the more pressing need for vocational training through apprenticeships and from lifelong learning in the further and adult education sectors.”