He has been pelted with eggs at a rally, escorted away from violent crowds by the police, but as he comes to the end of his stint as vice president (FE) of the NUS, the incident Shane Chowen seems most indignant about involves Vanessa Feltz.
In a live radio interview on the education maintenance allowance, the BBC radio London presenter said he was talking “a load of guff and hot air.”
“I text my mum and said ‘I’ve just been assaulted by Vanessa Feltz,’ he says, still sounding bruised by the episode. ‘She (Feltz) has got some nerve.”
The fact he can’t quite let this episode go says a lot about him. His persistence on the EMA campaign led to a partial u-turn from the government, which managed to find an additional £180m to help those already receiving EMA. And during his time as president of City College Plymouth’s student union, he campaigned tirelessly – and successfully – for the role to become a paid sabbatical post.
I text my mum and said ‘I’ve just been assaulted by Vanessa Feltz,’
But despite his tenaciousness, there have been disappointments – most notably his unsuccessful attempt to succeed Aaron Porter as NUS president. Despite being widely considered as the front-runner during the campaign, he lost out to Liam Burns, by a close margin. While similar in many respects, they clashed on tuition fees. “Liam had this line that we shouldn’t use the term value-for-money because it’s bringing consumerism into education,” he says, sounding outraged. “But in my view many students are already using it and if they are going to be paying £9k why shouldn’t they?”
And there is plenty more that gets his goat, including “members of the hard left of the NUS” who knock the kind of higher education typically offered by colleges (such as two-year degrees) for one. And those who say the private sector has no role in education.”The idea that you need to find yourself, and all that crap matters for a lot of people and that’s fine. But not everyone wants that sort of experience. And this idea that the private sector should have no role in education…around two third of apprenticeships are delivered by the private sector. At a time when so many people are out of education, employment and training, you can’t tell me that these are not valuable opportunities for young people and you would rather see them on the dole.”
But no one is more surprised than him to be where he is today, Politics wasn’t generally discussed around the dinner table when he was growing up in Plymouth with his dad, who is in the marines, and mum, a teaching assistant who both left school “as soon as they could.” Chowen volunteered for the first aid charity St. John Ambulance in his teens and aspired to be a doctor or a paramedic. He fell into student politics by accident, after going along to an NUS event out of curiosity during his first year of ‘A’ levels at City College Plymouth.
It was the “pantomime” of the commons and watching BBC’s Question Time that drew him into politics, he says. And his enthusiasm for social networking (he is an avid Twitter fan and regularly tweets from sector events with the hashtag #FEparty) the 22-year-old has brought a much-needed sense of fun to the world of FE, which has traditionally been characterised by jargon and complexity.
His background has definitely influenced his politics, he says.”I find it difficult to see a load of middle class university students lecturing me on what a good and successful education is when I am looking at it from the perspective of people who have yet to go to university at all, those who may not even have basic skill level qualifications or those learning through work.”
He admits he loves a good rant and in the four years he has been involved in student politics (two as president of his student union at Plymouth City College and two as VP (FE) at the NUS) he has become an accomplished public speaker on the conference circuit. He has also chalked up an impressive number of appearances on TV and radio.
And through his EMA campaign, he helped put issues that affect the FE sector – so often ignored by the media – on the public agenda. “These were students who were already applying to go to university and they got a double kick in the face when the EMA got abolished. Seeing students in their chefs whites and overalls and seeing it on every local news channel, national news channels was really powerful. Colleges don’t generally see themselves as lobbyists, but I think principals should stand up for their students – and with the EMA, by and large, they did.”
But, he says, there is still work to be done. The biggest challenge for his successor, Toni Pearce, who takes over the role later this month, will be keeping up the momentum of the last few years. As well as ensuring the EMA replacement is implemented fairly, campaigning on cuts – including enrichment funding and local authority transport subsidies – will remain a key priority.
She can expect strong support from John Hayes, says Chowen who, much to his own surprise, has a lot of respect for the further education minister “even if he is a Tory.”
After a “shocking” run of ministers including Sion Simon, whom he says was “diabolical,” and Kevin Brennan who “got FE but seemed like his heart wasn’t in it,” Hayes is a breath of fresh air, says Chowen. “He has been a Godsend to the sector, particularly how he has worked with Vince Cable on safeguarding adult learning. They have done wonders.”
But he has little time for education secretary Michael Gove, whom he calls “dangerous.” He is still angry about the “duff piece of research” that was the government consultation on the EMA. “About 91% of the survey sample of 2,500 young people were white and from nice leafy suburbs. You just have to look at the statistics of who gets EMA to know that is totally unreflective,” he complains.
The introduction of the English Baccalaureate (which measures pupils achievement according to how many A*-C grades they have in maths, English, science, a foreign language and history or geography) makes him particularly angry, not least because he feels it was a missed opportunity to raise the profile of vocational education. “He (Gove) is doing things far too quickly and taking us back to the kind of Stone-age education system that he benefited from, which is going to fail so many children and young people in this country. He wants people to learn Ancient Greek and things like that, but there isn’t the demand. It’s a nice thing to learn, and by all means feel free to learn it in your own time, but don’t tell me that is more important than a subject like IT.”
As NUS vice president (FE) Chowen has, amongst other things, been required to give evidence at select committee meetings and – along with other key figures from the sector and high-ranking civil servants – advise the government on policy. But one thing moving in political circles has taught him, he says, is that you can be more influential in a behind-the-scenes role. So it is unlikely he will stand for parliament at some point in the future. Nor is he planning to go to university – if he does do a degree, he will study part-time. With Chowen set to be out of a job at the end of the month, he is “talking to people in the sector” about possible openings and hints that an announcement about his future plans is imminent.
He needs no convincing Pearce is the right person to succeed him. “She totally gets the purpose of FE and who it is for. I don’t really need to brief her or introduce her to anyone – she already knows all the big players in the sector. I wish I’d known as much as she does know when I was starting the job.”