Vince Cable
Vince Cable spoke during the sixth annual lecture at the Cass Business School [Pic: Reuters]

Vince Cable has said that the government should not focus its efforts entirely on improving access for younger people into higher education without addressing the issue of adults without qualifications in order to improve social mobility in the country.

The business secretary said: "Narrow interventions simply based on early years will not by themselves clear away the barriers to social mobility in any significant way. To promote social mobility we've also got to improve the life chance of those who have already reached adulthood. We cannot support children without also giving parents a second chance."

Cable told the Cass Business School in a speech entitled "Accelerating Social Mobility: Improving Life Chances" that there was a need to establish "ladders of opportunity" for people at a young age and later on in life.

Cable noted: "We have these rather shocking facts that nearly five million people of working age have no qualifications. In England alone there are eight million adults who lack functional numeracy and five million who lack functional literacy".

He said that the older generation should not be seen as a lost cause.

"The fact that early interventions can be very effective doesn't preclude by any means the need for later investment," he said. "A recent update of government research showed that adult learning had major positive effects on mental health and wellbeing.

"Learning for those between the ages of 50 and 70, particularly unaccredited community learning, substantially increased wellbeing and also offsets the natural decline as people get older."

The secretary of state's comments come as Alan Milburn's report for the government on social mobility is published, outlining the steps needed to improve access to higher education for people across the country.

Milburn's report states that little progress has been achieved so far in opening up various professions across the UK to those from poorer backgrounds. The Sutton Trust released figures earlier this year that revealed four private schools and one sixth-form college had more pupils entering Oxbridge than 2,000 of the country's lower performing schools.

Oxford Universirty
Milburn's report shows that little progress has been made on widening access to the best universities for those from disadvantaged backgrounds [Pic: Reuters]

The former Labour minister dismissed universities offering fee-waivers when studying, saying that the organisations should intervene at school level by funding grants in order for poorer students to be able to get into degree courses at higher-end universities. The proposed grants would be similar to the EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance) that was scrapped by education secretary Michael Gove in 2011.

Dr Cable acknowledged that, "success in widening participation has not been matched in the most selective institutions," but declared setting admission targets or quotas for those from poorer backgrounds in higher education was not the correct step forward.

"There is no question of quotas and there is no question of universities losing their independence in respect of admissions. This is about encouragement and incentives, it's not about coercion," he said.

The coalition government came under heavy criticism for the hike in tuition fees in 2010, with numerous protests occurring across the country over what was seen as pricing those from poorer backgrounds out of higher education. Dr Cable stated that despite the massive increase in the cost of universities, there had not been a significant drop in applications from students from poorer backgrounds.

"It's also encouraging that despite many prophecies to the contrary, applications from people from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds have remained strong despite the introduction this year of the reformed system of student finance. Independent analysis by UCAS shows that the application rate for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds is holding up with only a very slight drop of one fifth of one per cent," Cable said.

The Secretary of State said that with the intense focus on higher education, "too little attention has been paid to the 60 per cent of young people who don't go to university". For those that didn't choose academic study beyond sixth-form, Cable promised vocational training courses would form an essential component of assisting people's integration into the workplace. "We are spearheading a drive to encourage more people to take up apprenticeships as a proven route for post school training," Cable said.