Robin Parker

13th April 2012 at 01:00
The president of NUS Scotland talks about widening access to universities, tuition fees and protecting budgets in FE. Interview by Julia Belgutay

What do you see as the biggest success of your first year in office?

It has been a successful year for education. In terms of campaigning, it has to be the Our Future, Our Fight campaign, partly in terms of the outcome - getting the Scottish government to reverse the pound;11.4 million cut they were planning and protect FE bursaries - but also in terms of the number of students that engaged across the country.

What made you come to Scotland to study?

I wanted to be outside of London - somewhere that had a good reputation - and ended up in Aberdeen. Your opinion about your course is valued, and you get more freedom than south of the border on where you go with your dissertation.

Do you think students are being taken seriously by politicians and the system?

Yes. With the campaign we ran before the Scottish parliamentary elections - Reclaim Your Voice - we got the vast majority of the parliament to sign up to our issues. And what was really successful about the Our Future, Our Fight campaign was that we made college students the big political issue. We shaped the political agenda over the winter period. Students have the ability to put themselves to the top of the agenda when they need to.

What do you think is the biggest challenge coming up in your second year?

What is exciting about now is there are some genuine, once-in-a-generation opportunities. The one I am particularly interested in is what we can do about widening access, particularly around universities. There has been a big injection of public money into them, quite rightly, and now is the moment to make sure our publicly-funded universities are fully open to the public, regardless of people's background.

Following the reversal of the proposed cut, is there now going to be enough money for student support in colleges?

We have protected the budget at last year's level, and there was evidence then that that didn't quite stretch far enough and things were under pressure. But the real thing now is that we are getting a wonderful opportunity to change how the student support system works, moving from the current system, which is a postcode lottery where funds can run out on a student halfway through the year, to a system where students have clarity before they start a course of study. Now it's more about changing the way the system works, rather than changing the amount of money.

Is your fight over, regarding the FE cuts?

We have to pay attention now to the local impact. We are where we are with the budget and we need to make sure that the real-term cuts that still exist are found through genuine efficiency, rather than cuts that hit the student experience.

What is your focus going to be in terms of HE?

Widening access. It is still only 9 per cent of students from the 20 per cent poorest backgrounds who get to university. That hides even greater discrepancy in terms of the research-intensive and post-92 universities. It is about forcing the doors open. There is talk of access in education not being based on someone's ability to pay. It also needs to not be about their financial and social background; it needs to be purely about their potential.

Why should university be free to all students? Wouldn't it be reasonable to expect well-off students to make a contribution?

Those who benefit most, financially, from higher education contribute the most back in income tax. I suppose that is why it is crucial now that for the contract between the public (who have agreed to back the important role of universities in terms of social mobility) and universities, the quid pro quo is that the full range of the public has access to university.

Some industries complain that not enough students are going into them, although there are jobs. Do you think students are good enough at anticipating where jobs are going to be?

I don't think anyone is good at anticipating where the jobs are going to be in three or four years. This is an often-repeated argument and I think the real answer is to make sure that we have lots of graduates who have transferable skills, who have broad horizons. I also think it's really important that our graduates and course leavers from colleges are really enterprising. The real problem facing students at the moment is the lack of jobs generally to go into.

There have been a lot of cuts to careers advice in FE. Is that going to be a challenge?

Yes. I have worries about what cuts have already meant for guidance and things like counselling. Colleges should really be improving their rates of retention and in the context of cuts, an easy one to make is to lose your member of guidance staff. They don't look crucial, but in terms of keeping someone on that course, making sure they get to a positive destination, they are.

Which story would you like to read in TESS when your tenure comes to an end in a year's time?

It would be around when the next round of funding council stats come out, and they show there has been an improvement in terms of the number of people from poorer backgrounds getting into university.

PERSONAL PROFILE

Born: London, 1986

Education: Olga Primary, London; City of London School for Boys; University of Aberdeen (geography)

Career: President of Aberdeen University Students' Association, president of NUS Scotland.

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