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Five ideas… developing SUs and Learner Voice in Further Education

Monday 16-11-2015 - 09:00

Recently NUS published a roadmap to guide ourselves in the future to build strong students’ unions and Learner Voice in FE.

Here, we summarise what we think our priorities should be for the next few years. We hope that members and interested stakeholders will see this as a start of a conversation about how we put FE centre-stage. These priorities are put forward as the start of a conversation to shape how we work and how we think about union development in FE.


1. Doing things differently

It’s time to focus on the difference we want to make, and be looser about how we achieve that. In practice this means broadening our definitions, reviewing what we consider ‘essential’ in students’ unions and being open to imperfect solutions.

To win the next stage of the fight for student representation in FE we need to build new, workable and effective models for SUs that will advance the cause of Learner Voice in the many varied contexts of FE.

As a starting point NUS will find ways for students’ unions to experiment with alternative approaches in order to challenge assumptions such as having one-SU per institution, or representative democracy in the form of full-time elected officers, or membership restricted to students. NUS will also ensure our management framework - Quality Students’ Unions (QSU) – is completely relevant to Further Education contexts and SUs are supported to evaluate themselves against it.

Success in five years’ time would be: that more students have access to effective representation through a structure suited to their mode of study and circumstances.


2. Telling a positive story

Students’ unions in FE must not be seen as in perpetual opposition to all new ideas. We have many brilliant ideas of our own, as do our allies, about how things should be. We must remember our ability to be inspiring, to give hope to those in need and to advocate for a better, more powerful alternative. We also have a not-insubstantial capacity to build evidence, and collect stories that support our arguments. The ways we think Learner Voice creates a better society can be tested, and used as part of our campaigning and influencing. Showing the effectiveness of Learner Voice and translating it for decision-makers should be a key activity for NUS.

It’s important to remember as well that there is much history in students’ unions and Learner Voice activity in FE to be proud of, and not just to critique. We must tell a story in line with what our friends and stakeholders are saying throughout the sector. Our story must be about the amazing difference a strong FE system can make in society. Our story must include the transformational power of empowered learners and how education must be a partnership.

Success in five years’ time would be: for NUS to speak influentially with FE at the top of our agenda.


3. Keeping a balance

As the FE system has been buffeted by changes in public policy, the priority of NUS year-on-year has tended to fluctuate between campaigning and capacity building.

This balance can be difficult to strike, particularly in times of crisis, but we have learned that doing so is an essential part of building power. Each time we have strayed too far either way (acknowledging that they are often very interrelated) and prioritised rhetoric and resources in one direction - at the expense of the other - we have struggled to make sustainable headway.

NUS should ensure staffing and resourcing for FE is secure within and embedded effectively across our internal structures.

Success in five years’ time would be: that NUS supports developing FE students’ unions as much as we do campaigning and advocating on their behalf.


4. Solid financial footing

Notwithstanding the fact that FE students’ unions typically have much less access to resources than our HE members (average block grant is £810k in HE vs £3.5k in FE), there is also a more systemic problem in that funding is volatile and unreliable. This can lead to inability to plan strategically or to retain people and an unwillingness to challenge the institution robustly.

NUS therefore must prioritise working with FE SUs to ensure financial sustainability. Our collective enterprises, particularly NUS Extra, must be able to provide independent, dependable income streams for FE SUs.

Success in five years' time is: to have well-funded and financially sustainable students’ unions across FE.


5. Opening ourselves up for FE

Of NUS’s engaged membership, most are adequately-resourced SUs with many full-time sabbatical officers and staff. It must not be forgotten that our events and programmes need to be accessible in a meaningful way to those with work, study and caring commitments, and to those with limited financial means. We must also make sure our language isn’t overly academic or full of assumed knowledge. This is a key part of transforming NUS to better support students’ unions.

Success in five years' time is: to have FE students represented proportionally within NUS.


You can read the full document - ‘Supporting students' unions and Learner Voice in FE where next?’ - online here.

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Education, Features, Union Development

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