Student governors frequently feel marginalised by college managers, but now help is at hand, reports Andrew Mourant
Wet behind the ears. Too green to understand what's going on. Often that's how student college governors can be made to feel, according to the National Union of Students.
They are not alone. As FE Focus reported early this year, many of the 8,000 governors serving FE colleges can feel emasculated, whatever their background.
The complaints are many: too little control over college strategic plans; drowning in paperwork; despair about instability within the sector. Such is the grim picture that led the Association of Colleges to set up a helpline in 2003. The good news is that students and colleges are acting in concert to improve things.
The NUS and AoC are putting on a two-day residential training convention for student governors, followed up by a one-day consolidation course. This is designed to become a student-governor package certified through the Open College Network.
Meanwhile, a "student toolkit" funded by the Government and the Centre for Excellence in Leadership monitors and supports student governors after training. NUS staff now regularly attend the AoC good governance advisory group.
Judging by NUS's response to the Government's review of college governance, a lot still needs sorting out. "Student governors often believe they are patronised and are treated by principals or corporation chairs as at best under-informed and at worst adversarial and must be side-lined or excluded from decision-making processes as far as possible," it says.
"Requests for additional information on a proposal or decision of the senior management team are shrugged off on the assumption that only those with an intimate knowledge of the college could be expected to have a responsible position."
Yet, says NUS, only student governors are capable of voicing students' real concerns. It is now calling for a greater representation on the governing body - up to three representatives at a large multi-site college "to reflect the diverse student demographic profile".
"Student governors feel more confident having another student member in the room to ensure that the 'student voice' is not swamped. There are still too many unjustified and unjustifiable exclusions of student governors from board meetings."
The union wants to see a student-governor-led subcommittee of the corporation, designed to work strategically on student matters. This would include other governors and, depending on the agenda, appropriate members of the senior management team.
Yet despite all the horror stories reported by NUS, some students seem to thrive. Danny Douglas, at City of Norwich college, is one.
"It helps that I'm a sabbatical president and have time to gather information about student concerns," he said. "We have good structures - all the course reps meet twice a term, which means I'm in touch with the coal face. The college has been good about paying for training - many don't. I'm not shouted down at meetings - I have more to say than most governors."
Ellie Russell, 17, serves on the full corporation and the learning and performance committee at Haywards Heath college.
"We were eased in - it's been very good," she said. "Sometimes the paperwork is daunting but we get it a week in advance which is fair enough.
We have a very helpful clerk."
Dan Brown, 19, from South Downs college near Portsmouth, says he has excellent support from staff and fellow governors.
"They want us to be fully involved - I've been asked to vote on financial matters, and when discussing the strategic plan, they broke everything down for us so we could understand it," he said.
Michelle Douglas, 24, a governor at Castlereagh college near Belfast, felt "petrified" when she started and "lost" in her first meeting.
"I think the college has a duty to promote more what being a governor is about," she said. "I've since been to a training event run by NUSUfi and that was fantastic - it told us everything we need to know and made sense of all the jargon."
But Andy Smout of Oxford and Cherwell college still feels in the dark after several months on his governing body.
"Meetings are a bit of a blur - though everyone else is aware of what's going on and what the procedure is. Probably the college could have done more to induct me. I haven't been on a training session though the college says it's willing to pay. But at the moment it's a bit of a nightmare."
Jim Dickinson, NUS research officer, says that student governors can find themselves in a contradictory positions - told in one breath to take a strategic view of things, and then being asked at meetings for a specifically student viewpoint.
"We argue that any good governor should combine experience of his or her constituency with analysis of the bigger picture," he said. "Students soon cotton on to where there's a good clerk."
Everyone is hoping for something better in the future. AoC and the CEL are addressing the issue through a joint leadership skills for governance programme. It provides continuous support through workshops, a new FE governance website (www.fegovernance.org), a board consultancy service and a freephone helpline.
The website will provide governors and clerks with the latest sector news, links to relevant information and a message board allowing them to network online. Leadership skills workshops offer information on induction to governance, excellence in governance, succession planning, standards and curriculum, and FE finance. Consultants will offer boards the chance of working one-on-one with a specialist expert.
"The Department for Education and Skills has funded this to the tune of around pound;1 million by subsidising courses and the website," said Anthony Smythe, governance development manager at AoC. "A one-day workshop will cost pound;150 and a three-day visit from a consultant will cost pound;650, where usually it would be pound;1,750. We would expect colleges to fund the rest, but it brings down the cost to make it affordable."