As the Government considers its college reforms, Justina Hart meets a strong advocate of student power
Sarah Russell is the new face of student activism. Just re-elected president of Stafford College's students' union, she is articulate, committed and just 18 years old.
Sarah is pushing for an improved status for FE students and an end to the universities' domination of this political area.
A student governor since she was first elected in July 1997 Sarah wants students to have a stronger say in the running of colleges.
She would probably find something complimentary to say about the Government's Accountability in Further Education, its consultation paper outlining reforms to college governance. It recommends a shift away from the business world to an emphasis on local authority and community representation.
The new proposal is for "at least one and up to a maximum of three" student governors. This will come as a shock to those colleges who have traditionally fought shy of student representation - they had until the summer to rgister any disapproval or disagreement.
Christine Megson, principal of Stafford College, says: "The general feeling is that the student voice isn't heard enough. Some colleges say that students aren't articulate enough or don't attend, but our experience is that Sarah Russell has been very, very active. It depends on having a good quality student prepared to speak out and attend."
Sarah, who had been a member of the Labour party for a number of years, initially ran for vice-president, but when the president's post went unfilled, took on both roles until September 1997. (When she has a spare hour or so, Sarah is also active in the National Union of Students as the West Midlands area FE union development officer.) The union president is chosen by annual student elections, and that decision is ratified by the governing body. The president then automatically becomes a student governor.
Her main objective has been to improve representation and communication with the student body. She has achieved this by ensuring that there are students on every committee in college. She is also on the academic board and runs the student council, made up of elected representatives from each tutor group.
Christine Megson says she faces face the council regularly. "Up to 60 people put forward their views and such a close relationship means that any concerns can be brought straight to me, and governors have direct access to students."
Stafford now has the best attendance record among student councils in the West Midlands.
The main function of a student governor, says Sarah Russell , "is giving the student point of view for every item we discuss, from the mission statement to the accommodation strategy". She also gives the college management and staff a point of contact if they want to know student opinion on any issue. She is aware of the comings and goings of the accounts, and sometimes sits in as an observer on the resource and audit committees.
When a member of the House of Commons select committee on education recently came to college, it was Sarah who showed the MP around. She also meets her local MP to discuss anything in the area - such as the closure of the local travel centre - that might impact on students.
All issues she's consulted on, including the minor ones, are important in incorporating the student voice: "Recently, the school of general education was doing a new advertising campaign for the college open day, and they asked my opinion," she says.
She also remembers a corporation meeting last July at which there was a point under scrutiny in the mission statement for student support. "It read something like 'academic, emotional, spiritual'. As a student reading that, I felt it was more punchy and inspirational than the longer explanation being considered." Her view was taken into account.
Sarah is now adamant that all colleges need student governors: "The vast majority don't have one, which means there is no feedback mechanism to colleges of students' views. In the past there was a concern that school-leavers weren't mature enough, but if you're interested in running, it can be assumed you have a reasonable level of interest and maturity. You have to be very dedicated to the job as there are usually no sabbatical officers."
Being a governor has had knock-on effects on a personal level. Sarah was considering a scientific career before her political role revealed untapped interests. "It's opened my eyes to how management decisions affect everyday life," she says.
"When the college was restructured last September, it was interesting to find out how management systems and channels of communication work."
Although it is early days, she has decided she now wants to work "with people", and is thinking of going into local government, or into management systems. She is re-starting her A-levels in maths, politics and economics.