FE badly needs empowered students to make its case to government

24 Jun 2022, 6:55

The NUS no longer has the resources to keep flogging the dead horse of FE student advocacy, writes Jim Dickinson

Following a spurious story about “woke” builders in the Daily Mail, how refreshing it was that trade union GMB spoke out about how ridiculous and patronising its story on mental health and skilled manual work was.

But when was the last time we saw that kind of student advocacy for colleges?

When I worked in students’ union development, I would regularly have to attend FE dinners and conferences where students from the local college would be invited to perform.

But the pride shown after four glasses of Chablis and a chicken dinner was rarely matched the following morning. Invariably, rather than indulging in backslapping saviour syndrome, I’d be arguing with principals and chairs about whether it was “possible” or “practical” for FE students to have some power over their curriculum or even their college.

I was reminded of this when I came across an academic paper on the role of the student governor and how the role is understood in colleges. A standout quote was:

“I’m not a major fan of student reps, if I were very, very honest. The whole concept of them, I’m not sure whether they add a lot of value… I think there’s a tendency for the student members especially to be strictly lip service, and I think that there should be far better ways of getting the learner voice to the board than through the student rep.”

Imagine being a college principal and having such little faith and confidence in your own college’s ability to develop students that you can’t ever imagine them being effective on your board.

And imagine thinking that “consultation” or “surveys” are a meaningful match for representation and agency.

In my time working at NUS, I met hundreds of student governors. I can count on one hand the number that weren’t able to do it.

Thousands more were never supported and enabled properly by the “great and good”, on the grounds that kind of thing “wouldn’t work in FE”.

When we really threw resource at it, that view was proved wrong.

With a Robin Hood-style redistribution of resources through the sale of NUS cards and affiliation fees from university students’ unions into the college sector, we were able to train student governors and support students’ union committees. We could also find the really talented ones to take part in national policy conversations.

Now and again, they’d get the cost of catering on campus down, intervene on public transport, change disciplinary policies and make the odd minister squirm.

Let’s have a national summit driven by FE students

In truth, proportionally too many of those we supported were doing A Levels and the level of effort and resource required to keep those plates spinning was often unsustainable.

And ironically, we were applying our own kind of benevolent paternalism ̶ imagining that just because some students in the UK get a students’ union whose origins are in ancient Oxbridge clubs, we should aspire for students in FE to have them too.

And it was always the case the most important thing that students in HE get from their students’ union (professional advocacy in the event of a complaint or appeal about the college or students/staff) was missing. It still is now, which is deeply worrying.

The truth is that NUS is successful in making student representation work in colleges in Scotland partly because there is both legislation and funding that supports it, and partly because a more “tertiary” sector involves colleges delivering more higher education.

It is unlikely to be a coincidence that NUS UK’s incoming vice president for FE, Bernie Savage, is from Scotland and recently completed an HND in business.

It is regrettable that she was elected by so few FE delegates to the NUS conference that it has refused to issue a ballot count sheet.

It is even more regrettable that NUS no longer has the resource to enable what amounts to an English dead horse to be further flogged.

There are models that might work. When the National Society of Apprentices was created (endorsed by a group of politicians who would struggle to engage with NUS now) democratic structures and funding arrangements were shaped by the apprentices in the room, not the romantic ambitions of those who’d been at university.

A national summit, driven by FE students and supported by those of us who believe in the agency and contribution of FE learners, ought to be enabled to answer the questions we never dared ask in the past.

With no disrespect to the Association of Colleges, the sector would probably be more persuasive if some of its own students were making the case to government for investment and change.

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