As the vice president for further education at the NUS it is my pleasure and privilege to work with students in FE across the United Kingdom.
Part of my role is influencing – as well as championing – the under-represented and under-appreciated FE sector.
Despite the fact that we educate over 3 million students in the UK every year, we are often the forgotten ones.
This matters. When it comes to political ambition, the sector’s supporters and – yes – funding, then the FE sector’s comparative lack of influence means that when the chips are down, we’re the last to see our hands.
Lack of post-Brexit vision for FE
This leads me on to the biggest issue of the day: Brexit. It looms ever closer and we are still waiting for a deal to be agreed, if at all. I have had many conversations over the past few months over Brexit – with students and senior figures alike.
Some of them have been about how good Brexit could potentially be for us, others about growing concerns about the impact Brexit will have on our everyday lives.
Yet for me, the fact that our education has not been spoken about is one of the most concerning developments. In particular, a lack of a vision for the FE sector in a post-Brexit world will almost certainly further limit young people’s life chances.
We have seen in the recent white paper that there will be no change for higher education till after the Brexit transitional agreements. There are guarantees in place for HE science funding and the government’s intention is to remain a part of HE schemes which obviously benefit the UK.
No-deal more realistic every day
It should be remembered, however, that all of this is still subject to a deal which has yet to be agreed by the UK government, let alone the European Union. A no-deal scenario becomes more realistic every day.
But for the FE sector, we have only been told to expect no further changes till 2019. At that point, no further guarantees can be made.
For a sector that has faced cut after cut, and is surviving rather than thriving, this is unacceptable. Since 2010, FE funding has been cut by approximately 22 per cent. At the same time, £380 million has been taken away from student support funding, and the adult education budget has shrunk by 40 per cent over the past eight years.
It is clear the sector is suffering, with student services departments the first to be cut – leading to a lack of information, advice, guidance, enrichment activity, counselling services and vital mental health support.
The skills gap continues to grow
Mine is far from the only voice calling for more investment in FE. It now appears it’s becoming less of an issue of political priorities and more one of practical survival.
The technical skills gap continues to grow, which looks set to be made significantly worse by Brexit. Significant and increasing pressure is placed on our world-beating staff. A significant amount of funding that benefits the FE sector is tied up within the EU.
The future of T levels and apprenticeships is rightly knotted ever closer to businesses – but unfortunately, many companies see their future investment and growth outside of the EU.
Our FE sector is one form of education where the most disadvantaged young people are most likely to be a part of. They are the ones who will be hit the hardest, and for the longest, by Brexit.
The People’s Vote campaign
It is these people who want a say on their futures the most. There are 1.4 million young people who have turned 18 since the EU referendum in 2016, who didn’t get their say on the biggest (and as yet unresolved) issues of our time.
That’s why the NUS is proud to support the People’s Vote campaign. Along with our member students’ unions and with the youth and student-led campaign For our Future’s Sake, there is growing momentum for a vote on the final Brexit deal.
Over the coming weeks and months, students in FE will ensure their voices are heard on the biggest issue impacting us all.
Brexit is a big deal, but it’s not a done deal – and FE students will no longer be ignored.
Emily Chapman is the NUS students’ union vice president for further education