Vince Cable gave a speech last week that most people won’t have
noticed or read. If you haven’t, it’s worth taking the time to do so.
I think it’s one of the best he’s given on either FE or HE.

It’s about the future for both sectors but it takes inspiration from
the past and Tony Crosland’s famous Woolwich speech from 1965 that
gave birth to an expansion of polytechnics. Repeating the history and
the sequence of events fifty years ago, David Willetts committed to
expanding HE to mark Robbins, and now Cable has followed Crosland by
calling for a new type of technical institution. Cable lauds a more
diverse sector from Crosland’s polytechnics to the Colleges of
Advanced Technology such as those at Aston, Battersea and Loughborough
that preceded them.

To his credit he doesn’t bemoan the fact that all these and more have
now become ‘excellent universities’ but rather a sector which we have
lost in the process. A sector that arguably never really established
itself – a strong vocationally orientated, technical system. It’s been
missing for hundreds of years – Samuelson, Forster and Butler all went
looking for it long before Crosland. Most have cast an envious eye to
the productivity and culture in Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia and
today pretty much anywhere in Europe and the OECD. Cable even looks
admiringly at Scotland and sees more such capacity than south of the

But of course he has to shoulder at least some of the blame. In his
time as Secretary of State at BIS the HE sector has become
increasingly homogenous and monolithic. The three year full time
undergraduate degree has become much more dominant. The honours degree
with its £9k unit of resource has devoured everything in its path –
from part-time to postgraduate. As John Gill said in the Times Higher
last week – ‘the relentless focus on funding the 18-year-old
full-time undergraduate has been at the expense of coherent policy in
other areas’. The fact is that the UK (and England especially) has a
‘one size fits all’ system – in the OECD, it is the least diverse
system in terms of age, mode of study or qualification.

Even in part-time study it seems that the full degree has dominated –
all other HE qualifications have withered dramatically. And these are
the types of study that Cable champions in his speech. Despite what he
says, FE hasn’t done particularly well either. It’s been cut to shreds
in both pre and post 19 funding and diminished in stature and
capacity. Apprenticeships have expanded – although there remain
concerns about both definition and quality, but anyway FE colleges
deliver less than half of them. And I suspect that Cable knows that
apprenticeships aren’t all they are cracked up to be – just 2% are at
higher levels (equivalent to a degree or HND/HNC level). In volume
terms that’s just 10,000 out of around 500,000 apprenticeship starts.

There are similar issues about his HE claims.  Yes there are more
students than ever before and more from disadvantaged groups – but
only for young people. But you can tell he’s a little uncomfortable
about that because he thinks more should be in the kinds of
institutions that he extols in his speech at Cambridge. He’s also
uncomfortable because he knows that for all of the political throat
clearing there are fewer people in all forms of higher education than
in 2010 and it’s been declining every year since.

HESA chart

So for all of the excitement about the RAB charge in recent weeks and
the cost of the current system compared to the old, the missing piece
of criticism is that for each graduate, the costs are turning out to
be significantly higher. As Gavan Conlon of London Economics recently
pointed out that’s not an efficient use of resources – whether through
loans or grants – and as an economist Cable will understand exactly

So what of the speech and what he wants to see emerge? Credit where
credit is due. Cable recognises the shortcomings of the current
system. While Willetts was arguing for an expansion in the style of
Robbins, Cable wants to see it in the style of Crosland. One vision is
rooted in the LSE and the other in Woolwich Polytechnic. When George
Osborne announced the expansion in December 2013, Cable was
conspicuously silent – only weeks before he’d said at the Lib Dem
party conference that he didn’t see the case for expanding HE, as any
extra place offered only a marginal rather than an average return.

So what does he want to see instead? More high level apprenticeships,
technical colleges offering their own high level qualifications, more
part-time and sandwich provision, more collaboration as well as
progression between FE and HE. City and Islington College, Coventry
University, Gateshead College and Nissan, Warwick and Jaguar Landrover
are all offered as case studies. And they are all very good examples
of what is being done in FE and HE.

Of course he might have thought about this earlier but he’s not the
first minister to come up with their best ideas at the end of their
time in office. But does he have time to deliver them, if he is only
now promising a prospectus for such institutions? This is territory
for the next parliament and it’s significant that Labour have also
talked about developing such specialist provision – from the Husbands
Review to Lord Glasman’s call for the rebirth of similar technical
institutions. Liam Byrne too has been calling for an ‘earn while you
learn’ revolution.

Vince Cable’s Conservative colleagues might be more reluctant to see
such institutions emerge through diktat. For them, higher education is
best diversified and shaped by the market with competition and new
providers driving choice as well as value for money. But there is
little evidence of that so far. Cable is clearly unconvinced by such
an approach. He wants expansion but predominantly in a specialised,
niche part of FE and HE. Like Crosland, he thinks it will require the
state to make it happen. One might reasonably assume that he’d also be
happy to see it develop at the expense of some existing higher
education provision.

Cable has got his diagnosis right and his recommendations for a new
higher technical sector should be welcomed. Just like David Willetts’s
celebration of Robbins, Cable’s rediscovery of Crosland is admirable.
But he should think about more recent history if he really wants it to