Business Secretary Vince Cable’s Cambridge Public Policy Lecture on the future of further and higher education last month brought the prospect of elite colleges to the fore, as Mick Fletcher explains.

The Business Secretary’s speech was an important one. He was clearly trying, retrospectively, to impose a logical policy framework on an area where development has derived from soundbite politics rather than coherent analysis.

It is a measure of how far we now sit from rational policy formulation that Dr Cable can announce that the Department or Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) will issue a National Colleges launch document ‘in the near future’, months after ill-formed ideas for an ‘HS2 College’ and a ‘nuclear college’ first emerged.

His objective — to raise the status of FE and by so doing help expand the numbers studying technical subjects at higher levels — is worthy.

Unfortunately his prescription is profoundly wrong. It fails to understand both FE and the nature of higher education delivered in FE colleges and ignores clear lessons from history.

Dr Cable is right, and not alone, in lamenting that increasingly FE colleges are focussed on lower level work. He ignores however the fact that this is a deliberate policy choice by his department.

It is BIS funding rules and priorities that direct funding towards basic skills and level two; his funding cuts that are making it harder for adults to access learning at level three and above.

If government wants to retain a ‘ladder of opportunity’ through FE it should stop chopping away at the rungs.

Dr Cable is right, and not alone, in lamenting that increasingly FE colleges are focussed on lower level work

Developing a new tier of ‘elite colleges’ can only make the problem worse; higher level skills will be focussed in a few institutions and progressively removed from the rest.

This has happened twice before as first the CATs (college of advanced technology) and then the polytechnics were wrenched out of the FE system.

We should reflect carefully on the fact that while Aston, Warwick, Loughborough and the rest remain high status institutions delivering world class technical skills their removal from the sector did nothing positive for the status of those left behind.

Moreover, the fact that these higher education institutions are now called universities has not altered the fact that they are primarily technical institutions.

If there is a demand for more technical training of the highest quality it is not clear why they should not be leading its delivery.

Dr Cable comes dangerously close to saying that what we need from the new ‘elite’ FE institutions is something of rather lower status or ‘sub-degree provision’. It is a very odd way to raise the status of the technical route.

FE colleges already play an important role in the delivery of higher education.

Its leaders emphasise that it is distinctive in being work focussed, part-time and concentrated on adults. In many cases it grows organically out of a specialism offered at lower levels providing a basis for progression outside the traditional academic route.

To the extent that this is true the creation of a network of elite colleges risks undermining provision already at risk from cuts in public and private funding — part time enrolments are in free fall particularly in sub degree provision.

A large part of higher education in FE is not part-time however; much and perhaps a majority serves young full-time undergraduates who can study more cost effectively by living at home.

An important potential role for colleges is to help make higher education more sustainable by offering locally-based provision, often at sub-degree level but with articulation agreements that allow top up to a full degree.

If, as in the USA, this local higher education is to play an increasingly important part in higher education provision it requires a growth in the capacity of all major FE colleges — not their decapitation in favour of an elite.

Furthermore, if national specialist colleges require students to live away from home on maintenance grants they constitute an initiative pointing in precisely the wrong direction: more high-cost full time provision for the mobile young at the expense of the local, part time and affordable.

It is good that Dr Cable is thinking about FE and higher education, but on this central point he needs to think again.