Full-time, salaried officers in FE student unions are still fairly rare. But one college has found a new way to develop its student representatives: by creating an apprenticeship.
Layla Adaci, 19, began work as South Devon College's student union president at the beginning of the month after beating two other candidates in an election. At the same time as fulfilling her duties she will be completing a level 3 apprenticeship in management.
Despite growing demands on colleges to cut costs, paid sabbatical roles - where students take a year or more from their studies to represent their peers - have been gradually increasing in recent years. In 2007, there were only 23, but by last year that number had more than doubled. The investment in student representation still lags far behind that of universities, however.
Ms Adaci's role is paid at the apprentice minimum wage by the student union, so it remains independent of the college. The union does, however, receive part of its funding from the college.
While the minimum wage for apprentices is less than that paid to officers at many colleges, who in some cases have been offered an annual salary of #163;11,000, the National Union of Students (NUS) welcomed the opportunity for sabbatical officers to gain a qualification from their experience.
"It's a pioneering step in terms of learner voice in a time of college cuts and youth unemployment, showing a real commitment to both the student population of South Devon and the individual post holder," said Toni Pearce, vice-president for FE at the NUS. "The role of a student union president is varied and differs from college to college, so it can be difficult for the individual to express the skills they've gained.
"By undertaking an apprenticeship linked to their role... the student is able to leave their role in office with something employers understand."
The ability to translate the experience into a qualification that other employers will want is particularly important as, unlike other apprenticeships, the job is only available for one year.
Ms Adaci has studied at the college for three years, first in art and design and then beauty therapy. She hopes eventually to work as a teaching assistant. "I want to work in a school or a college, probably a primary school," she said. "But I don't want to go to university just now, so I was thinking of other ways to get experience and qualifications."
She will work with the college's student liaison officers, who will act as her mentors during her apprenticeship and ensure that she is aware of the college's structure and policies so that she can represent union members. She will also be trained in safeguarding issues.
"College has helped me a lot. I didn't really do well at my old school," she said. "I wanted to put something back."
South Devon College employs around 30 apprentices in a variety of support roles, but this is the first time it or any UK college has used apprenticeships to develop democratic student representation. Alex Howarth, manager of the college's Helpzone, said: "We are getting someone who is constantly there and focused on putting forward the student voice."
Ms Pearce said that she hoped other colleges thinking of developing a sabbatical role would consider the apprenticeship route. "It's a great and innovative way to build capacity for strong, autonomous, campaigning unions," she said.