by James Cleverley
As Student President at Coleg Cambria, one of the largest colleges in the UK, I’ve seen the Further Education sector ignored by far too many institutions for far too long. Whether its NUS campaigns which exclude us, or a government which simply leaves us behind, time and time again students in Further Education are not given the recognition and representation we need. As a result, our issues continue to go unaddressed.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the level of activism amongst FE students falls far behind that of our counterparts in universities. Every day I hear the same issues come up from the students I represent; a lack of affordable and accessible transport, a catering service not fit for purpose, the cost of study supplies getting higher and higher whilst financial support is diminishing – but students do not feel they have the power to change any of this.
If we are to properly represent our half of the student movement, it is vital that we not only put these issues at the forefront of the education agenda but also give student unions in colleges up and down the country the tools and support they need to challenge these problems for themselves.
When I talk about the NUS with other FE students, at most they recognise it as a discount card – and often they don’t know about it at all. All too often it is seen as a body which just applies to University students, when in reality FE makes up a greater proportion of NUS members than our HE counterparts. In order to represent all students, it’s vital that the NUS diversifies its campaigns to include issues facing college students, apprentices, and others.
That’s why I was so pleased to see the motion I introduced on empowering the FE voice in the NUS pass with so much support at Labour Student’s Conference in Manchester last month. So many of the national campaigns the NUS runs are based on issues which do affect FE, but without relevant material and proper support Student Unions in colleges like mine are locked out of getting fully involved. By making sure that every NUS campaign includes material that Student Unions from across different educational institutions can use wherever possible, students will begin to see it as a body which exists to represent them instead of just “the discount card people”.
But to effectively empower students, it is not enough to merely organise a campaign day or a Twitter storm. We need to ensure that every student, no matter what area of FE or HE they are in, knows exactly how they can raise the issues they care about and launch their own campaigns at a grassroots level; and as a student movement we need to be right there beside them to offer guidance and support when needed.
Whenever the government announces a review of education or any sort of policy change, all too often it centres around either the school or the HE sector which means that Further Education is perpetually left behind.
Whilst there is a specific Minister for Schools and another one for Universities, this government has not granted the FE sector this same level of representation. This means that accountability for the many issues facing such a large section of students is not clear which makes it even harder for us to campaign effectively. Whilst this may at first seem like a trivial issue, it summarises this government’s complete disinterest for such a large section of the student population.
In practice, this means that they have gotten away with pinning the burden of austerity unfairly on these students such as scrapping the EMA which for many students was the difference between being able to afford to go to college or not.
To stand up to this injustice, it’s vital that we have a vibrant and active FE section of our student movement which can effectively campaign around the real issues facing students today. The time for lip-service is up – let’s now bring these issues to the forefront of our agenda.