I’ll give FE learners a louder voice nationally

Writing exclusively for FE Week, Shakira Martin, the new president-elect of the NUS discusses her ambitious plans to represent students of all stripes by leaning on her own background in further rather than higher education

I sat down for breakfast with my two daughters over the weekend, back to normality after the rollercoaster of NUS National Conference. Finally, I had the chance to reflect on my journey, how my FE college gave me what I needed to put food in front of my kids and how my student union gave me – a black woman and single mother – a voice.

It was a conference where students – FE, HE and apprentices from across the UK – put their faith in me to lead the NUS as president. As just the second president to be elected from FE, following Toni Pearce in 2013, I want to continue to fight for the voices of the often forgotten FE learners nationally.

Since taking office in July 2015, the theme of my vice-presidency has been another bout of fundamental reform: I am sceptical of the reviews, but have fought and lobbied government through the NUS’ #FEunplugged campaign to make sure the voices of learners are heard and our rights are protected.

As education was changing around us, we had to be at the table making the case for the future of FE we wanted to see. We needed to show what learner voices can do to those who have undermined them for years.

The general election gives us a great opportunity to put FE learners in the spotlight

Since then, there have been announcements on possible funding for merging colleges, using loans from the treasury to plug the gaps in the sector, the insolvency regime, the post-16 skills plan and T-levels, the apprentice levy and a new Institute for Apprenticeships, which will take on colleges as well from 2018.

Even the terms ‘further’ and ‘vocational’ education were forgotten about in favour of ‘technical education’. I’m surprised anyone is able to keep up!

So much reform in so little time carries huge risks. I speak to student governors who tell me that they have seen two or even three strategic plans for their colleges over the last two years, just to respond to the changing landscape. Providers are being given such little time to pause, plan and move forward.

We have to make sure that learners are not forgotten, but seen as equal partners to the needs business in an economy struggling through a chaotic Brexit.

Our FE Unplugged campaign has taught us that debt is not solely an undergraduate issue. Learners are feeling the pinch through 19+ loans. Crucial grants such as EMA, disabled students’ allowance and the adult dependants’ grant have been cut over the last few years, putting up barriers for tens of thousands of current and potential students to the education they deserve.

The general election gives us a great opportunity to put FE learners in the spotlight. In the wake of the Brexit vote, work is being done to enhance vocational education, but my student movement wants big answers from political parties in this general election about how they will remove the barriers faced by so many to getting a decent education.

Last week, the NUS conference promised to run the biggest voter registration drive we have ever held – and as the president-elect, I plan to make sure we do exactly that over the next four weeks. The voices of every student must be heard at the heart of every election manifesto, and the NUS is runnning a #GenerationVote campaign across both FE and HE.

Whoever forms the next government will find me at the front of the queue to number 10. Alongside Emily Chapman, my excellent successor as VP FE, and the rest of my officer team, we will put a coherent case for strong, active student unions in every provider.

We will hold the new government to account over a Brexit which the majority of students didn’t vote for, and we will amplify the voice of learners for a generation, both locally and nationally in a country that is forgetting to listen to them.

It was FE that gave me my voice. I want to work with the sector to make sure that it does the same for millions of others.


Shakira Martin is vice-president for FE and president-elect of the National Union of Students

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