The National Union of Students is too often seen as an organisation representing students at university. Little do people know that actually, the majority of our membership are students’ unions in the further education sector, ranging from FE Colleges, sixth forms and adult education providers.
My role as NUS Vice President (Further Education) is to lead the National Union’s work on further education policy; a job I was elected into after being an FE student for two years and spending two years as Sabbatical President of City College Plymouth Students’ Union.
I’ve just got back from our very first Further Education Zone Conference where over 130 representatives from students’ unions attended to have their say on the big issues in our sector. Over two days, delegates took part in workshops and policy forums facilitated by all the FE big names ranging from UCU, BIS, Edexcel, NAMMS and ATL. We were also fortunate enough, and extremely grateful for, sponsorship from Blackboard and the Institute for Learning, without which many FE unions couldn’t have afforded to come. What came out of the conference was a raft of ideas, views and comments on our educational experience.
So what are the issues students face in further education?
A hot-topic for discussion with students is always the Education Maintenance Allowance. Love it or hate it, the EMA has had an undeniable impact on the student experience in terms of participation, retention and achievement. I plan on writing about this issue in my next article in a little more detail, but want to make absolutely clear now that any suggestion from rightwing thinktanks that EMA is a "waste of money" will be met with strong opposition from students and NUS. By no means is EMA perfect, but the suggestion that it should be scrapped altogether shows a blinding lack of understanding of the student experience and the challenges facing our poorest students in further education.
We are also very aware of the opportunities and challenges presented to us as a result of the changes in the way our courses are funded post April 2010. Students’ unions have a clear and important role to play within these new structures, not least because the learner voice has never had such a clear remit to influence policy and practice. Something which has been growing on the minds of students over the last few years is the rise in the voice of the employer.
Officials and our institutions often throw the line, "employer and learner voice" but we need to be clear about what that actually looks like within the new funding structures. The last thing I want to see is a further education system caught up in a whirlwind of employer responsiveness targets and initiatives, while the voice of students becomes overshadowed and sidelined. My view on this is clear - under no circumstances can decisions about commissioning and funding of provision be made without adequate representation of elected student representatives. There is a lot of work to do here; and there is a role not just for national and local government, but for our institutions too, and well supported and valued students’ unions are the key for making this happen.
The forthcoming rise in the education and training participation age also stirred interesting debate. Whilst students are largely supportive of this agenda, particularly when certain myths - such as "it’s really the school leaving age" and "you will be stuck in a classroom until you’re 18" - are proven wrong, there are many questions which students want to see answered. For example, with the requirement of employers to ensure that 16-18 year olds receive a certain amount of training whilst working for them, there is concern that this would make young people less appealing for employers to take on - particularly with small businesses. The argument for accessible, reliable, high quality information, advice and guidance was reinforced further to ensure that, given the exciting new options now open to people post 16, students are making the choices right for them, not their parents or the state.
Students are not just talking about the national policy landscape. In our classrooms, we want to see our teachers and lecturers adequately trained and supported too. There is obvious enthusiasm amongst the student population for the progression and promotion of e-learning, and a call for better utilisation of social networking as part of our learning experience. It’s about time senior managers got themselves a Facebook profile and saw what it’s really about, rather than immediately demonising social networking and blocking access. For vocational lecturers, we want to ensure that they are given the opportunity to keep up to date with their craft, so their teaching reflects modern and real life developments in their sector – ensuring students gain the right skills for employment.
My challenge is to work with the sector and make these policies a reality. This year, students in FE have made very clear what kind of sector they want to study in; it’s an exciting sector where being a student doesn’t always mean being lectured at. It’s where the opportunities for both 16-19 and adults are accessible to all, where, whatever your reasons for wanting to learn, you are welcomed with open arms, not turned away with a whopping great invoice. It’s a sector where those in most need get the right help and it’s a sector which is respected for the amazing and life-changing work that it does - and I look forward to putting NUS at the heart of making that happen.
Shane Chowen is vice president (FE) of the NUS, a confederation of 600 FE and higher students' unions