by Rachael Pells,
The former Business Secretary says the further education sector is overlooked and undervalued, and is to lead a review of UK further education policy this year
Concerns have been growing over the future of university funding since the referendum vote took place, with academics expressing fears that a disconnect from the EU along with rising tuition fees will deter those considering the UK for their studies.
“Universities will become more expensive because they no longer get cross subsidy from overseas students,” the economist and former MP told The Independent.
“Higher education now costs you real money, so you’ve got to think about whether it is a good way for you to develop.”
In the current economic climate, Sir Vince said young people may need to look at options other than university when planning a career.
“I would tell 18 year-olds today that you’ve got to start thinking out of the box,” he said.
“The idea we always used to have – that the clever academics go one way and the rest of the population go another –is a terribly outdated, horribly bad way of looking at the world.
“If you just go to university without thinking about it, and you just pile up student debt and get a crappy degree that doesn’t help you to do anything, would you not be better off going the FE [further education] route?”
His comments come amid terse debate around government plans to stop universities from offering overpriced “mickey mouse” degrees.
As of this term, universities are required to publish detailed information about the quality of their courses, providing evidence that courses offer students value for money.
“Doing a proper apprenticeship and then going on to degree level, you’re working and learning at the same time – for a lot of kids it’s a better option,” said Sir Vince.
Working with the National Union of Students the former MP is to lead a 360 degree review of further education policy, questioning students on their experiences in order to determine how government focus on the sector could be improved.
“There’s a terrible snobbery around FE, which goes back a generation,” said Sir Vince.
“FE, for many people, is a better option. It’s flexible and it’s something you can do in your own area – there are very high standards often.
Coming from a working class background, Sir Vince went to Cambridge University with a scholarship to study science and later economics.
“A great deal has been done to open young people’s eyes to the opportunities presented by further education and apprenticeships,” he said of the project, Students Shaping Further Education.
“As Business Secretary, this was a personal priority for me. Instead of harking back to the past with grammar schools, we need to provide young people with the skills they need for the future: their own livelihoods and the economy as a whole. We need to look forward, not back.
“This review will do exactly that. It’s about taking stock of the role that further education can play for people from all walks of like – preparing them for the workplace, and preparing the workplace for the future. I look forward to hearing students’ views and recommending new ways forward.”
Shakira Martin, NUS further education sector vice president who will be working with Sir Vince, said that changes to government policies in further education could have “serious potential damage” to young people from less advantaged backgrounds in particular.
“We need to get FE priorities on the agenda,” she said. “The 24-plus loan has now been extended to 19 plus.
“So when you’re 19 if you don’t have that traditional route in education and you want to go and do a level 3, you’re going to have to pay for that.
“That’s before they even get to university – so right now we need to put FE on the agenda and ensure that funding is going to the right places.
“FE represents the majority – 1.4 million people are currently in further education of some kind. And often discussions around it get drowned out by HE [higher education including universities].
“We are the forgotten Cinderella sector.”
Sir Vince added: “When I was in government, the thing I always felt that as a country we have failed terribly at is that we are good at the academic stuff – our universities are the best in the world, the really bright kids are looked after by the system.
“But the millions of people who go through further education – that’s the bedrock of the country – and these are the kinds of skilled people that make the country work, but they get nothing like the same attention.”
“Social mobility is key and that’s possible through the FE,” he said.