Anyone working in or around the further education sector knows of the challenges many college students face. We hear of students having care responsibilities in addition to having to master their studies, students escaping chaotic homes or those coming to college as their second chance at an education. Many students have jobs to finance their studies, of course, but there are also many who struggle to make ends meet in circumstances we can barely imagine.
Of course, teachers at schools come across poverty in their classrooms. But colleges are the institutions that young people, as well as mature returners, will often turn to as a pathway out of that poverty. Colleges can open up opportunities and routes into industry that change a learner’s life. If only they can get to the end of their course and secure work.
This week’s Tes Scotland survey results are a stark reminder of how bad things are for some of Scotland’s college students. To make sure learners don’t have to make the choice between attending college and feeding themselves, a number of institutions are handing out vouchers for local food banks or supermarkets.
One college even tells us it has emergency food parcels, provided by food banks, ready for those students most in need, while others run a breakfast club to make sure their students start the day with a meal they can afford. Another college is in discussions with a local food bank, to see if it should open a branch on campus.
I will admit I was pretty shocked by what colleges told us in the survey. Not by the fact that colleges are handing out vouchers, but by the fact that this is necessary at all. I cannot imagine the pressure that these students are under.
It puts last week’s story, in which we revealed that a number of colleges were charging students who dropped out of their course within the first six weeks, in perspective (“Colleges hit drop-outs with ‘appalling’ charges”, 5 January). Imagine simply not being able to make it work: being unable to cut down the hours at work sufficiently to be able to study at college, or being unable to afford transport to classes, and – having taken the decision to drop out – being presented with a bill for a course you understood to be “free”.
There is no magic bullet. Poverty is a deeply entrenched issue in Scottish society. Reforming the Scottish student support system would be a step in the right direction. Virgin Money chief executive Jayne-Anne Gadhia led an independent review of FE and HE student support for the Scottish government. In November, she presented her blueprint for a fairer system – and this is currently being considered by ministers.
While we wait for that, there is something more immediate we should all do. Spare a thought. Spare a thought for the kind of barriers some college students face. Next time you read about college drop-out rates, or low attendance among the students from the most deprived backgrounds, consider how different their life may be from yours.
Even working in – or writing about – further education, it can be too easy to forget.