The NUS president who believes in second chances

28th August 2015 at 01:00
New post-holder has first-hand experience as an adult learner

Although tough economic realities are affecting the whole further education sector, the plight of adult returners, part-time students, parents and carers is often particularly acute.

Now this group is being represented by someone who has first-hand experience of their struggles. Meet Vonnie Sandlan, a 32-year-old mother of four, a dropout from the schools system and the new president of NUS Scotland.

"College funding is at its bottom level right now, it cannot go any lower," Ms Sandlan told TESS in her first interview.

The drop in the number of part-time learners was of particular concern, she said.

"It is great that full-time has been maintained, but it is people like me and people who want to come back to college who rely on part-time places. They are the absolute definition of widening access students and they are losing out."

Despite the difficult financial times, she said, it was crucial for colleges to continue to offer second chances to those who needed them. "I believe colleges can, and should, and must," she said.

Student support was another matter that deeply concerned her, Ms Sandlan added: "We saw colleges this year saying that they did not have enough money to support their students. We should not see that."

Student support funding had to be maintained at a level where it did not "need topping up every year", and "students should know at the beginning of the year how much money they are going to have", Ms Sandlan said.

A different path

Her own journey through education was not linear, Ms Sandlan told TESS. Having been a student at Glasgow's independent Craigholme School, she reached a point in S5 where she "couldn't face staying in education", and left.

She had her first child, and found herself "in local authority housing with a small son and not very many prospects". She enrolled to study social sciences at Glasgow Caledonian University, but was forced to leave in order to care for her grandparents. She only returned to education years later, signing up for an HNC in early education and childcare at what was then Langside College.

Ms Sandlan completed her course in 2013, and - making use of a route it is hoped that many more students across Scotland will be able to take in future - articulated into the second year of university to do a BA in childhood studies at the University of the West of Scotland. She believes her time at college was crucial in preparing her for university.

Her goal as NUS president is clear. "I want to see FE students funded on an entitlement basis," she said.

Ms Sandlan also wants "higher student involvement" in all parts of their college courses, and for learners to have the best possible time, "not just academically, but the whole student experience. I would love to see people maybe take up sport, or politics. I want it to be more than just getting a qualification."

As the first parent to hold the post and the first woman to do so in years, Ms Sandlan explained that she faced an added responsibility. "How I manage this has an impact on whether there is another student parent that can come after me," she said.

But the new NUS president is optimistic about the potential of the newly established student associations at merged colleges.

"We now have college student associations that are as strong, if not stronger, than their university counterparts, and they have built that up over the past few years," she said.

"I want to see students at the heart of what education means to them. There is so much opportunity to change things for the better."

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