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Student reps should be a right, not a luxury

THERE appears to be a consensus that student representation is a positive thing. Yet for many further education students the existence of an active students' association is a theory, not a reality. Often an individual student on a full-time course is the only recognised representative for the whole student body.

Where the pressures of underfunding and the lack of support become overwhelming, that student often loses motivation and resigns. The result is that there is then effectively no students' association and thus no student representation at the college.

Representation should be a right, not a luxury. The primary purpose of a students' association is to ensure that all students have access to independent advice and support, within the college, but not from the college itself. The student officers represent the views of the student body on college committees, including the boards of management. They also represent individual students in disagreements, disputes, appeals and complaints.

From the evidence of the higher education sector, it is clear that one of the best methods of ensuring effective student representation is for the students' association to have at least one sabbatical officer. Many higher education institutions provide funding for five or six sabbaticals and their contribution to the quality and calibre of student representation is invaluable.

These elected representatives have a strong mandate to speak for the students of the college and, as importantly, they have the time to devote to this role. They have the flexibility to sit on committees, including the vital student position on the board of management, take up welfare issues, and devote themselves to student services.

It is often pointed out that, unlike higher education, further education does not have consistency of representation. Students are often at the college for one year rather than three or four years at university.

However, this points to an even greater need to provide for consistent, experienced representation.

Another weakness is the lack of staff devoted to the continuing development of the students' association. They are as important to the successful running of a students' association as the elected sabbatical officer. Staff can also provide sound advice and guidance to incoming student officers and volunteers, who change from year to year.

Assisting in orientation and settling in, as well as maintaining and building on achievement, so that each new student officer does not have to rebuild from the ground up each year, are crucial and under-utilised aspects of the professional input into student-led services.

There is a huge discrepancy between funding levels in higher and further education. The block grants of students' associations in higher education institutions range from pound;35 to pound;28 per full-time equivalent student. The equivalent figure in the further education sector, where block grants exist, ranges from pound;1.87 to 10p. The 40 NUS-affiliated college students' associations receive a total of pound;256,300: less than many single higher education students' associations. While the two sectors are not directly comparable, it is clear that there is a huge shortfall.

In order for student representation to flourish, the infrastructure must exist to ensure that the most able representatives are encouraged to stand for election, and are supported throughout their time in office. The benefits to colleges and their students will be clear.

Rami Okasha is president of the National Union of Students in Scotland.

This article appeared in the latest edition of the FE journal Broadcast.

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