Cable warns of 'appalling' record on skills

vince cable Image copyright PA
Image caption Vince Cable says the low status of vocational qualifications has deep roots

"Britain has done appallingly badly at vocational education for many years," says Sir Vince Cable, former business secretary, as Theresa May's industrial strategy promises to regenerate technical training and tackle the skills shortage.

But why has this always been such a struggle? You could build a paper mountain out of all the plans to give vocational education the same status as university degrees, A-levels and GCSEs.

"It's a deeply cultural thing," says Sir Vince, who held office during the Coalition government.

"It got built into the British mindset... if you're clever, you go to university, and if you're not so clever you go off and do a trade of some sort," he says.

"It's still the case that if you're academically inclined and you don't know what to do, you go to university.

"The others are told, 'Why not do an apprenticeship?' without being given much of a steer as to how to do it.

"And that's completely wrong, for many people it would be better if they went down that route from day one."

Free trade v protectionism

Sir Vince, who once taught Open University economics courses, is now getting back to his own educational roots.

He is leading an online course on economics and politics, with the University of Nottingham, which will be available free on the Futurelearn online university network set up by the Open University.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Vince Cable says the Chinese are now the free trade defenders, while the US puts up walls

There will be no shortage of contemporary upheavals for these online students to talk about.

Sir Vince talks of a "bizarre Alice in Wonderland world" in which the Chinese Communists are now the advocates of free trade while the United States, under President Donald Trump, is raising the banner of protectionism.

"You've got a hard-line Communist out there defending the liberal international economic order," he says.

He describes himself as a "big fan of the Chinese", adding: "like George Osborne".

Sir Vince had a close-up view of economic decision-making by politicians.

He ranks Gordon Brown above David Cameron or Tony Blair on their grasp of economics - and says that all politicians can be guilty of looking for economic theories that confirm their political inclinations.

Rise of populism

George Osborne's approach to cutting the deficit, in the wake of the financial crash of 2008, was shaped by the rules set by US economist Kenneth Rogoff, says Sir Vince.

And he says that the current rise of nationalism, populism and the push for protectionism are the direct fallout from the economic hangover from the recession.

"The real energy behind this new populism does come from 2008," he says.

"Real wages have declined, particularly in deprived parts of the country, public spending has been cut because of the deficit."

He says this has delivered a shock to a political system built on a post-War assumption of rising living standards.

Sir Vince's new teaching project forms part of the wave of so-called Moocs - massive open online courses.

Moocs are also characterised by being free - and his period in office as business secretary saw him taking the controversial decision to raise university tuition fees in England to £9,000 per year.

Tuition fees have hung like a dark cloud over the Liberal Democrats ever since - but he remains a stout defender of the fee increase.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Vince Cable, who put up tuition fees, says the alternative was to cut further education

"It was the right thing to do, but very, very politically painful," he says.

The alternative was to cut the further education budget. "I wasn't willing to go along with that."

The fees are in effect a graduate tax, rather than a fee, he says, and the Liberal Democrats' big mistake was signing a pledge not to increase fees.

He says he was "vehemently opposed" to this promise before the 2010 election.

"I could see that if ever we got into government, it would be a disaster.

"But there was a very strong head of steam and the leader felt he had to go along with it, and once we were in government we were inevitably exposed."

The Politics of Economics and The Economics of Politicians will be available on Futurelearn from 20 March.

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