FE Focus Editorial - Cable's loose connection puts FE in peril

24th September 2010 at 01:00

Coalition politicians such as George Osborne, in an attempt to prepare the way for their austerity cuts next month, tend to say Gordon Brown "spent too much" as chancellor and prime minister.

The likely effect on institutions of possible cuts in FE suggests that this was not really true. If the Government was spending more than it needed to, it ought to be possible to point out some frivolous spending that could be stopped without any great loss.

On the contrary, colleges expect that some key courses of obvious economic benefit, such as construction and engineering, may become too expensive for some institutions to run amid thousands of job losses and hundreds of thousands of places in education lost (page 1).

In truth, it is the collapse in tax revenues that turned the deficit into a crisis. It is not that we are spending too much, but the Government is earning too little.

But the revenue side of the equation is not going to be addressed by Government. Perhaps nothing sums up the coalition's approach as much as nicknaming the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as "the Department for Growth" and then contemplating real-terms cuts of up to 40 per cent.

Even if the cuts are not as drastic as the Association of Colleges fears, to meet the deficit reduction targets they are likely to be severe.

Business, Innovation and Skills Secretary Vince Cable did not so much address this issue in a speech to the Liberal Democrats' party conference this week as create the appearance of having addressed it.

"It is my job as Business Secretary to support business growth," he said. "And this knowledge-based economy requires more high-quality people from FE, HE and vocational training." Fair enough.

"There has to be a revolution in post-16 education and training. We are making a start," he said. OK, then.

But when it comes to the crucial question of money, Mr Cable was silent. He has plenty to say about university funding, but nothing at all about how FE is to survive. It is not enough to say, as Mr Cable did: "I want everyone to have the chance to continue their education." It is not enough to claim credit for an extra 50,000 apprenticeships when no one knows how these will be funded in future.

There is a gaping hole in the Coalition's programme, and it is how to keep the FE system going in a time of austerity. Instead, we have a policy based around colleges and training providers simply demanding more in fees from students and employers regardless of their ability to pay.

It is amazing that a department which is expending so much energy anticipating Lord Browne's review of HE funding and student finance has not made any connection to the adult skills system which it also oversees.

Mr Cable said "unhelpful cultural prejudices and vested interests" need to be overcome, and that apprenticeships mattered as much as top A-level grades, merrily lobbing stones from the safety of his greenhouse.

The failure to offer an equivalent system of student support for people who decide to prepare for their career, and to improve their skills, with vocational qualifications rather than degrees has always been an injustice. But it is about to become a crisis, too.

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