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Sector is lifted up into poll position

The National Union of Students is to make further, not higher, education its priority in funding campaigns for the first time.

The union voted to press for higher education to subsidise its lower-profile, but perhaps more cash-strapped counterpart, at its annual conference in Blackpool this week.

Delegates agreed that the union's current policy was "failing further education students" and that they received "the worst deal" in education funding.

The NUS will lobby to axe fees and for free home-to-college transport for FE students. It wants the funding to come from Government coffers filled by student loan repayments.

The decision to abandon a long-standing commitment to fully funded grants came after a passionate debate was swung by the votes of FE delegates. It adopted the practical approach of the union's Blairite wing, which asked students to abandon their stance on free education and join a centre-Left consensus with politicians, educationists and other unions.

For 16 years, the NUS has campaigned to restore grants to 1979 levels - a step which could cost Pounds 3 billion. Grants have been reduced by a fifth in the past two years and the student loan facility increased by an identical amount.

Danny Douglas, NUS vice president for further education, said: "It is highly significant that FE is to head our priority list for the first time. Anything that sends a message to the outside world about the hardship of FE is a good thing."

Attendance by the sector at this year's conference, which attracted 1, 500 delegates, was higher than ever before, as half of registered colleges were represented.

Much of the key debate on grants was dominated by discussion of the issues affecting FE students. The conference also revealed a political shift by the FE lobby, which usually aligns itself with the Left in the NUS, towards the dominant Blairite wing.

Conference also accepted that potential FE students were being deterred by lack of financial support, and were discriminated against through having to pay tuition fees, unlike their HE counterparts.

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