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Student voice cries out for reform

In the main, students and colleges want the same thing - a college system that gives opportunities to people of all backgrounds and helps them make the most of their talents.

However, too often in the past, colleges and students have not spoken with one voice. The opportunituy is there for colleges - especially during the recovery - to be a huge driver for Scotland's economy and for a fairer society. Reform is clearly needed to turn this from opportunity into reality. We need to see more places, revision of student support and a greater emphasis on the student voice in how colleges are governed.

The economic downturn has seen unprecedented increases in applications, particularly from mature students, in recent years, and we can expect yet more new records for applications this summer. While the recession has led to a renewed interest in studying at college, there are not enough places to meet demand. This year, all across Scotland, thousands of students have been turned away as colleges close their doors, despite often dipping into their own reserves to fund additional places.

NUS Scotland has argued strongly for additional places to meet more of this demand. Spending a little extra now on places could see vast returns in the coming years, through lower benefit payments in the short term, lower societal costs of unemployment and greater levels of skills to help our economy in the upturn.

The Scottish Government shares our concerns in trying to find new ways to meet more of this demand, and has provided additional funding in the past few years.

However, this is not just about greater numbers of college places: students need to be properly supported while they study. This is not simply an issue of principle, but one of good sense. Making savings on student support is a false economy, reducing the quality of our graduates and failing to make the most of the money we spend on college places.

The student support system has been stretched to breaking point. Research by NUS Scotland late last year found that more than 90 per cent of colleges surveyed had experienced "unprecedented demand" for support funds, and we know a number of institutions have now run out of funds, so many of the poorest and most vulnerable have been denied the help they need.

As a result, rates of financial hardship among college students have gone through the roof, with commercial debt - borrowing on credit cards, bank loans, cash-a-cheque, and so on - rising markedly over recent years. However, the economic downturn has been more of a catalyst than a cause with regard to these problems.

NUS Scotland lobbied robustly for a seamless education system, not just between school and tertiary education but also to bring down barriers between the college and university sectors. If we are to get the best out of all our talented people, we need to provide progression routes that enable students to go as far as they can, rather than impede progress. While such a merged system exists in many ways for institutions, the barriers for students between FE and HE exist now as much as they ever did. This cannot go on.

Discretionary bursaries are the main support mechanism for the poorest college students, which means that, even if you have been offered a place, there is no guarantee that you will receive support. If the college you have applied to has seen too high a level of demand this year, you may not get funding. If a large number of parents or mature students have applied this year, you may only get support at a lower rate than in previous years or less than at other colleges.

Equally, if funding problems hit halfway through your course, there is no guarantee that the funding will last until the end of it. This is in stark contrast to HE students.

The system is complex and lacks the certainty of planning that college students need, creating a postcode lottery of support. Colleges separated by only a few hundred metres could have very different support systems. The hard work of bursary officers, interpreting this system for students at colleges across Scotland, is one of the main forces keeping the system going.

This is not sustainable. We now need a fundamental review of the college student support system in order to find a way to take the best parts of it - particularly maintaining the network of bursary officers - and combining these with the best parts of the system for HE students.

Finally, we need to see changes to the way colleges are governed to ensure that the student voice is heard at all levels in Scotland's colleges. Too often we find that students are not valued or trusted sufficiently to take on this role. The voice of students should be the critical friend of the college, stopping it from bringing about unintended consequences.

If colleges are to play the role that they should, the sector must change how it operates. We must reform the way students are funded, redouble our efforts to break down the barriers between colleges and universities, and put the student voice at the heart of college governance.

Liam Burns president of NUS Scotland. (This is an edited extract from an article in the latest issue of `Holyrood' magazine).

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