A Loud and Clear mandate

28th October 2005 at 01:00
New NUS vice-president is first elected to represent FE sector without university votes

Ellie Russell has a unique mandate. She is the first person to take the top further education job at the National Union of Students with votes solely from members in colleges.

She will now spend the next year on her campaign for better funding and representation for FE students, called Loud and Clear.

Removing the influence of university students on the role of vice-president for FE is one of the first steps in an attempt to strengthen the union's work in colleges.

Despite the public image of the NUS as the training ground for university students with an eye on a political career, Ms Russell points out more than once that nearly four million out of the union's five million members are in FE.

Speaking on her mobile in a break from a college visit, the 18-year-old seems generally unfazed by responsibility.

She enjoys recounting how she caught out a college manager who was outlining his views on the immaturity of 18-year-olds - not knowing that she was still in her teens.

When she does show her age, it tends to be in her enthusiasm - almost every question came back to her excitement about the job.

"It was really exciting," she says about the election. "This year we had record numbers of FE students coming to conference. The NUS is starting to put more emphasis on FE."

She attributes part of the change to Kat Fletcher, president since 2004 and a former student of Sheffield college, who said last year that the union had been "deficient" in its commitment to FE.

Ms Russell finished her studies in English language, literature and drama at Haywards Heath college in Sussex this summer, leaving with an A and two Bs.

The vice-president position brings with it a pound;17,000 salary, but Ms Russell has chosen to stay living with her parents in Sussex.

"I travel around a lot. Apart from the first few weeks during the summer, I've spent most of my time in colleges," she said.

The first step of the campaign is to get more financial support for local student unions - an NUS survey last month revealed that one in five unions survives solely on fundraising.

But she has already met the resistance to student power.

Ms Russell said she nearly choked on her lunch when she read FE Focus columnist Dennis Hayes's polemic against student evaluations while sitting opposite its author at the TES symposium earlier this month.

However, support may well come from Sir Andrew Foster, who is completing his report on the future of colleges.

He has already said that students have powerful things to say about their education, although he hinted that these may not be welcomed by some college principals.

Ms Russell says the achievement she is most proud of is raising the union election turnout at her local college from an apathetic 35 per cent to about half the student body.

"That was what confirmed to me that I was doing the right thing by going into NUS because it shows that a bit of determination, teamwork and a willingness to listen to people can really make a difference," she said.

Now she just has to repeat that trick across the rest of the country.

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