FEfocus Editorial - A lost chance to vote in a precedent

15th April 2011 at 01:00

The election this week for president of the National Union of Students was a work about 10 years in the making (page 3). That is the time it took for the behind-the-scenes changes that enabled a credible challenger for the presidency to emerge from FE. Its failure and the diminishing possibility of it happening again should concern all those who care about colleges.

The NUS had to get its own house in order first: its FE representation had been an afterthought for too long. Highly organised university student unions monopolised the attention while the disparate, unfunded masses from FE were easily overlooked.

By changing the voting rules so that universities could no longer take part in the election of the vice-president for FE, a space was created within the NUS where college students could see their decisions having a more direct influence. That was a major step in organising the student body in FE.

But this was not just an internal matter for the students' union, where colleges might have cheered on the FE candidate merely out of a sense of tribalism. Having an NUS president whose academic credentials were from a college would have been a real asset for FE, and it would have come about partly through the funding and support which forward-looking colleges have given to their student unions.

They created and funded sabbatical posts, so students did not have to juggle representation of thousands of their fellow students with the demands of their own course. They built in representation for students into everything from governance to lesson observations. And most importantly, in the best cases they took students' views seriously.

But the money to support this often came from entitlement funding, which has been cut to the bone. Colleges taking tough decisions about whether to sack staff or cut courses might decide that backing student representation with cash is too much of a luxury.

They may even be right, but while the savings are all too obvious, what is lost is no less important for being a bit abstract: a collective effort to create and train advocates for FE from the student side.

It is possible that the desire for organisation and representation will outlive the availability of funding. There are signs that the campaigning over the education maintenance allowance, for instance, has politicised a whole new generation of students.

But if student representation does falter for lack of support, it should be a concern for college leaders too. Part of FE's problem with its reputation and its ability to get political traction is that the beneficiaries are largely invisible. Of course, teachers in FE see on a daily basis their students' lives and prospects transformed. But they do not have a media figure, someone who would be a mainstay on Newsnight and Question Time to embody the concerns of people who go to college. That is what universities have had in NUS presidents for decades.

A victory for Shane Chowen would have been in itself a demonstration of how FE works as a career path, as well as providing a powerful advocate on the national stage for the education system used by most of our teenagers.

That is a missed opportunity. And if financial support for student representation dies out, it may not come again.

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