22nd January 2016 at 00:00
Death and taxes


While the much-feared Autumn Statement ended up being nowhere near as bad for FE as had been trailed, the sector wasn’t without its casualties. One organisation namechecked as a fall guy to help make the £360 million of savings needed by 2019-20 was the poor old UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES).

Since then, there has been no news on the self-styled “industry-led organisation that offers guidance on skills and employment issues”. But it certainly seems to be an easy way for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis) to save a few bob: in 2014-15, a whopping 94 per cent of UKCES’ £40.9 million budget came directly from Bis.

And FErret’s spies in Westminster say that the winding up of UKCES is likely to be formally announced after next month’s board meeting, with the organisation expected to have shuffled off its mortal coil by the summer.

But with dozens of redundancies to push through, closing the organisation will not come cheap – and this cost would come at a time when Bis will be preoccupied with setting up the new Institute of Apprenticeships, which will overlap with many of UKCES’ functions.

A Bis spokeswoman said that UKCES’ funding would be withdrawn during the 2016-17 financial year, but that the body would be left to make the final decision on whether it will cease to exist.

And what of the major pieces of work for which UKCES is known – not least, the Employer Skills Survey, Employer Perspectives Survey and National Occupational Standards? There is no shortage of interested parties keen to keep them going in some form, FErret understands, and Bis is still locked in talks about their future. Watch this space.

Nagging suspicion

It is common practice for ministers, when greeting the new intake of MPs after a general election, to make it clear that their door is always open for them to come and speak about any issues that they have.

But there was a notable exception as far as skills minister Nick Boles was concerned. FErret has got wind that, in the heady early days of the new majority Conservative government in May, he reportedly said that he would welcome a visit about any FE and skills-related matter – as long as it wasn’t sixth-form colleges and VAT.

The Drop the Learning Tax campaign – spearheaded by the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association – certainly built up a head of steam, to such an extent that a year ago it recruited some celebrity backing in the shape of actor Colin Firth and X Factor host Dermot O’Leary. The latter, a former student at the Sixth Form College, Colchester, said that he was supporting the campaign because he wanted “future sixth-form college students to benefit from the sort of education that has served me so well over the years”. Barely a session of education questions in the House of Commons went by without at least one MP making representations on behalf of their local college.

And it seemed that the tenacious campaigning had finally achieved its goal in November, when chancellor George Osborne announced that colleges would be free to convert to become academies “so they no longer have to pay VAT”.

And the reason for this volte-face? Pestering politicians into submission. A key factor behind the decision seems to have been that ministers were simply sick and tired of people wittering on about sixth-form colleges and VAT. So what can we learn from this approach to lobbying? If at first you don’t succeed, nag, nag, nag again.

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