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A regional revolution for FE

Monday 26-09-2016 - 14:19

NUS' full time officers are working to bring a proposal to improve our democracy to National Conference 2017, and want our members to bring forward ideas that could help. To start the debate, Richard Brooks and Sorana Vieru have set out their ideas, and this week Shakira Martin looks at how further education can become better represented within NUS.

Last week Sorana posted about needing a little more conversation for a little more action. Well, despite all the talk about FE, there’s nowhere near enough action.

First off, NUS must do more to ensure that learner voice at an FE institutional level is bolstered not banished through area reviews. The relationships between the colleges and NUS is critical to the success of this work. So we have to stop saying FE is a priority and start acting like it’s a priority. This means putting the full force of the people, ideas and resources of the student movement behind the work.

When, and only when, we’ve guaranteed representation for students at FE and Sixth Form colleges, school sixth forms and apprentices can we increase their voice within NUS. We’ve been working hard to develop proposals around the National Society of Apprentices. The way the apprentices organised at UK national conference last year was inspiring: they met before conference began together, worked out what they thought together, then sat together and voted together. Question is, what would it take to do this for more FE students?

FE students’ unions and students are time and money poor. So while NUS’ decisions are made over several days in one place requiring money for travel, food and transport, FE will be disadvantaged. But what if, building on area review roundtables, space was created more locally to bring FE students and students’ unions together? Imagine all the colleges in Manchester and Liverpool getting together to come up with ideas and agree what they thought about other groups’ proposals. This could be other policy NUS proposals or, as local authorities, local enterprise and commissioning groups take more of a lead in commissioning what best services the needs of local learners, what they think about local authority proposals. If you could tie this into “training and development” for FE course reps, the colleges might even support the events and help the students take the time out. There is also an opportunity to work with the colleges to make it part of people's study programme, as work experience or enrichment, to increase buy in.

Now even if this enables more FE students to get together and work out what they think, it doesn’t get round the fact that they will have to get together with other non-FE students to debate and vote on policy. At this year's UD zone Richard will be experimenting with an online platform called Represent. Represent allows you to put people in a group (like a private group on FB) then ask members of the group simple yes/no or multiple choice questions. It also allows you look at how similar your answers are to other members of the group and, if you want to, allow other members of the group to vote on your behalf. What if we use this form of “liquid democracy” through Represent to give the full voting power of FE students’ unions to those FE delegates that can attend conferences? So say if between them, a group of local FE colleges were entitled to send ten delegates to a conference but only five could attend, those who couldn’t make it could give their vote to one of the 5 who could. If you give someone your vote, Represent shows you how they voted, allows them to explain their choice and also allows you to give your vote to someone else. So accountability is built in.

Now hold up, I’m not saying this alone is enough. If these delegates turn up to a conference and we haven’t changed all the ridiculous language, then it’s not enough. If they turn up and we still have really complex processes that can be used by the handful of people who understand them for their own gain, it’s not enough. If people can’t speak their minds without fear of being harassed on social media, it’s not enough. But if we can assure learner voice at an institutional level, help bring FE colleges at a local level and pool their power together digitally at a national level – well maybe that’d start to be the kind of democracy we could be proud of.

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