Bernie Savage

vice president for FE, National Union of Students

Don’t make student representation tokenistic

Bernie Savage, the new vice president for FE at the NUS, was blown away by her time in a strong and well-funded students’ union. She relays her message for unconvinced college principals to Jess Staufenberg

The vice president for FE at the National Union of Students has a proud history of postholders very happy to rock the boat: Shakira Martin, Emily Chapman – and even FE Week’s own editor, Shane Chowen. 

But never before has it been held by an adult learner who spent time in women’s refuges and foster care, and cut their teeth at a well-funded students’ union in Scotland.

That is until Bernadette Savage, or Bernie. She appears to know exactly what an effective SU looks like, and I’m betting will accept no excuses for anything less in England.

The former BTEC student rose from being class representative at City of Glasgow College, to president of its students’ union, before taking over the FE role at the NUS from Salsabil Elmegri last month.

She is a blaze of energy and vitality, and when I begin with her childhood, replies with a wide grin that doesn’t prepare me for the tale: “Oooh, the life story is a riot!”

It started that way – Savage’s mum gave birth to her on a street waiting for an ambulance to arrive – and was left deeply unimpressed when it eventually turned up, apparently “dirty” she cackles.

Savage was one of six children and, in a bid to make herself heard, was a tearaway in her Newcastle primary school. Her punishment was to “go and read to the headmistress”, at which her mum told staff: “Well that’s stupid, she really likes reading!’” 

So the school decided instead to reward her with reading if she behaved. “That worked better,” Savage chuckles.

Her wicked grin and cheery demeanour breeze through what sounds like some very tough situations for a child.

There was domestic violence at home, and her dad even took her away for several days when she was six, only returning her to her worried mum because she was hungry. 

Her stepdad, an ex-Marine, turned out to be similarly bad news. So she and her mum “stuck a pin in a map, and mine landed in Devon”. It was a women’s refuge, miles from the north-east.

“That was a riot too because no one understood my accent down there,” Savage continues. She has lived twice in women’s shelters, once aged five and once again aged 11, and estimates she has moved home about 25 times.

She jokes, but with a serious edge, that three of her streets have featured in Channel 4’s The Secret Millionaire (in which a wealthy person lives in an impoverished community).

At a housing rally

During this upheaval, Savage’s mum died of breast cancer. Savage reflects on how she responded to such a great loss aged only 14.

She became a “bit shut off”, she says – and even today finds it hard to be around someone’s naked emotions. “I’m a bit ‘there, there’ because I find it hard to know what to say. I want to know what I can do to help!”

Her other reaction was to suddenly begin behaving at school, because it was a safe space. “I went from being someone who was biting everyone to constantly being there. No one picked up on the change.”

At this point Savage, her sister and younger brother moved in with her mum’s sister, but it didn’t work out. She eventually got taken into foster care, living with an “amazing” Trinidadian woman called Sarah, whom she remains close to today.

It was just in the nick of time – Savage got six GCSEs, and headed to Newcastle College to study a BTEC in beauty therapy services.

As a result the new vice president has the benefit of experiencing students’ unions in both English and Scottish FE institutions. The one in England didn’t leave an impression on her, she warns.

“I just don’t recall it having a students’ union. At City [of Glasgow College], it’s all over the social media, people talk about it.”

Savage on her birthday

So the SU passed her by, and Savage realised she wasn’t destined for a career in beauty therapy. Instead she and Sarah drove to Northumbria University and managed to find her a place studying health and social care.

But with little pastoral support and a dislike for asking for help, Savage struggled in the degree and managed a 2:2. Soon she was back home, working in hospitality and surviving off the tips.

Two moves then followed which show there is a bravery and strength to Savage that I imagine is why her fellow students have trusted her to represent them.

First, she clocked she was in a minimum-wage “vicious cycle” and in danger of doing nothing with her life. She took the extraordinary step of moving to Australia to join her sister living there, quickly building up skills selling a newspaper on commission out there. 

But on returning home after a year, most of her friends were “still on the dole or in hospitality” on low wages.

“I don’t know if I realised it would be Groundhog Day [a day that repeats itself for the rest of your life], but I booked a flight to Thailand,” she tells me. “I’m normally someone who hates change – I’ve no idea what went through my brain that day.”

Savage had landed a placement on a TEFL course, teaching English as a foreign language to kindergarten children in a rural Thai town.

In Ha Long Bay in Thailand

Working with small children was a revelation for her, and after her NUS stint she wishes to become a primary school teacher.

“You can be having the worst day, and they come in really excited about this ridiculous thing, or they’re upset because someone called them a pineapple,” she grins at me.

“FE students are great – but they’re still not quite as amusing as a five-year-old.” 

After four years, Thailand’s laws banned her from teaching further without a degree, so Savage returned to the UK and headed to City of Glasgow College to take a higher national diploma in business.

First she was elected class representative and, with the arrival of the pandemic, found herself busily communicating between students and college leadership. Soon she was the paid, part-time vice president for teaching and learning – and is filled with praise for the support she received.

“I really liked it! We have student engagement officers that mentored us, we got to sit on college boards and worked with senior management.”

By contrast, FE Week reported in June that many colleges in England have slashed their student support teams due to a combination of budget cuts. Meanwhile, NUS itself also has fewer resources since a big financial restructure in 2018.

I can say to colleges in England: look what you can do with some funding

“The student association wasn’t tokenistic at City like I’ve seen at other student associations,” nods Savage, the affection for her Scottish college evident in her voice. “I can take that to colleges in England and say: ‘Look what you can do with some funding’.”

It’s a powerful message. As Graeme Kirkpatrick, a former NUS vice president for Scotland, has previously warned FE Week, it is FE students who particularly suffer from cuts to SU funding as those from less privileged backgrounds may be intimidated by the formalities of the role.

Doing TEFL Teaching English as a Foreign Language teaching

Savage knows this first-hand from her time in Glasgow. “The college were really good at breaking down the jargon so I understood it. The student engagement officers understood how my brain worked better than I do.”

Elected as NUS vice president in March this year, Savage has a direct message for colleges without proper SU teams here.

“The only reason not to have this is if you’re not interested. You’re just not listening to your biggest asset here. FE students and apprentices are so often overlooked and it needs to end.”

The only reason not to have an SU is if you’re not interested

She leans forward, talking directly to those at the top. 

“I imagine for a lot of principals, it’s years since they were a student. Their student experience isn’t what’s happening now, and by the time it’s gone from the student rep through other people, it’s not the truth anymore. They need to break down those barriers and go and talk to the students and students’ union.”

Aside from better support for SUs, Savage has two other issues in her sights for her two-year term: apprentice pay and adult learners in FE.

After our chat she has a meeting with Ben Kinross, the deeply committed founder of the National Society of Apprentices, which launched within NUS to support apprentice representation in 2010.

“The apprentice pay rate is slave labour,” Savage says bluntly. “I would challenge the new PM to live on it. It’s disgusting.”

Receiving a college award

She also wants the voice of adult learners to be properly heard. The funding cliff-edge at age 19 or 25 for many courses and subsidised transport prevents people like her from re-training, she warns.

“People assume FE is 16-19, but it’s not. Are they carers, parents, part-time or evening? These students don’t get surveyed a lot and I feel like no one asked them what they want.”

But Savage is also aware of the contextual challenges ahead – including that many of today’s students may be more enthusiastic about global online hashtag campaigns than college policies and students’ union membership.

“I think that’s definitely a thing, because people are constantly online,” she agrees. “But that’s where the unions need to change their comms strategy. Go to where the students are, not where you think they are. Get online.”

This needs people on the ground making a racket

On the other issue facing SUs – the lack of funding in FE – Savage is utterly straight in her response. “Stop taking the cuts quietly. This is a thing that can’t be an email. This needs people on the ground making a racket.”

College leaders should be involving their students directly, Savage adds. “Colleges need to get students backing them up, and acting as case studies.”

There’s no doubt about it: Savage is a powerhouse. And with that big grin, too, she could be the very visible postholder the role so badly needs.

“Don’t make students’ unions tokenistic,” she concludes to colleges. “Students are paying for your jobs.”

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