I remember distinctly the first time I attended my first ever College Corporation meeting as a student governor back in 2006. After a day of A levels, I’d change in to my new suit, replace my textbooks with equally heavy meeting papers and enter past the “no food or drinks past this point” sign on the classroom door for pre-meeting drinks and nibbles.
It was one of the most daunting events I have ever experienced. At the time there was very little training available, the other governors didn’t really know what to say to me andthe meeting papers I had brought with me might as well have been in a foreign language. To top it all, I was by myself.
Huge benefits were to be reaped from having two student governors; some places even have three.”
Luckily a year later the law changed. The Further Education and Training Act 2007 placed in statute a duty for FE corporations and the Learning and Skills Councils to consult with learners on decisions likely to affect them. Later this would result in things like Learner Involvement Strategies but what I was most interested in at that point, was that on 17th December 2007, a revised version of the Instrument and Articles of Government for FE and Sixth Form was released which meant that there would now be two student governors.
Huge benefits were to be reaped from having two student governors; some places even have three. This was a huge step forward, and the result of years of a textbook campaigning spearheaded by the National Union of Students.
Last week the NUS, along with UCU and UNISON, raised their outrage at last minute amendment tabled by Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State Lord Hill, Michael Gove’s representative in the House of Lords, which would effectively allow corporations to modify or replace their own Instrument and Articles, effectively repealing the duty to comply with having two student members on the corporation.
No one will be shocked to learn that my view is that student governors must stay and that the legal right of learners have access to membership of the very top levels of governance at their institution has to be protected. We should be proud of the fact, that when our mission statements have lines like, “putting learners first” we nail our colours to the mast and without shame give learners an equal vote around the table on the big strategic decisions and hold their senior managers to account.
Here are some arguments which I imagine will arise as this debate develops and why I think they are all wrong.
Arguement 1: The legislation has done its job. This doesn’t need to be law any more.
There is no evidence that we even have full compliance of this legislation four years on, let alone to suggest that the job’s done. And since when was law used to overcome short term problems, only then to be repealed later on when a Minister says so?
Aside from the fact that there’s no ‘job done’ evidence, a duty to consult with learners is a powerful signal as to the nature and ethos of further education.
Arguement 2: You don’t need student members on the board; we have better ways to consult with our learners.
My view is that no Governing Body is legitimate unless the user group whom they serve are properly represented; and if we’re being honest, if we’re talking about properly represented; the debate should be on increasing the number of Student Governors. It’s a matter of volume. How many local employers are represented, compare that with how many learners you have – then consider the diversity of programmes within that group – then tell me even two is enough.
Arguement 3: Student Governors are just not effective.
Which is an excuse to give up? In years gone by training and development opportunities for Student Governors has been weak – but new schemes such as the Student Governor Support Programme by NUS is proving incredibly effective.
Arguement 4: We’ll form some kind of sub-committee.
Some places already have some kind of ‘Student Affairs Sub Committee’ of the Corporation. This is a great addition, but , as I said at the beginning, the point is about having a vote at the same table as the rest of the Governors.
We continue to see deregulation as an all or nothing issue. But out of all of the different categories of membership within FE Governance, it is the student positions that are always vulnerable which is why they have to stay in statute. I am not immediately against those who may well be campaigning for greater freedoms; so long as they do so without abdicating their responsibilities to their learners.
Shane Chowen was VP for FE at the NUS and is currently an FE consultant tweeting as @shanechowen
Update: FE Week has approached the Association of Colleges (AoC) and asked whether they support the policy change.
Martin Doel, Chief Executive of AoC, said, “AoC has argued consistently for greater freedoms for colleges so they can provide an even more effective service to the students, communities and businesses they support. Even if there is not a statutory requirement, we believe that it would continue to be good practice if college Boards were to benefit from the contribution of student and staff governors.”
A spokesperson from the AoC refused to clarify whether this meant they supported the ammendment.