Monday 21-09-2015 - 16:14
Since taking up the role of Vice-President (Further Education) I’ve had to confront a whole range of new government policy decisions in FE.
One of the most important and worrying developments has been the beginning of ‘Reviewing post-16 education and training institutions’ in England. The government wants to review FE and sixth-from institutions, area-by-area, to ‘move towards fewer, often larger, more resilient and efficient providers.’
After pilot reviews in Norfolk and Nottingham, where colleges are already beginning to merge, big reviews are now planned for Birmingham, Sheffield, and Manchester with more places being announced very shortly. The plan is to have reviewed every area in England before March 2017.
Let’s be clear – the government’s plan is the inevitable follow up to the disastrous and crippling cuts to FE and sixth forms over the last five years.
The government has fundamentally failed to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to providing opportunities for young people and adults. It has talked up the importance of vocational education and ‘earning or learning’, whilst placing the FE sector at risk of ‘financial meltdown’. NUS will continue to fight further cuts to FE and to make the case for public investment.
It is absolutely vital that students’ and learners’ voices are heard in the upcoming reviews. That’s why we will make confronting and engaging with them the centrepiece of the upcoming FE Zone Conference, consulting FE unions on learners’ expectations of their education, from access to quality to outcomes that need to be at the centre of this process.
For my part, I want to see the following:
- Larger FE institutions require a much greater commitment to learner voice and FE students’ unions. This was one of the outcomes of college mergers in Scotland, with the new ‘Framework for Strong and Effective College Student Associations’. FE students’ unions are already my priority this year and I want to work with the UD zone towards a similar framework for England, which we will discuss at our upcoming ‘FE Union Development Summit’.
- People should be able to access their education regardless of where they are from or what their circumstances are. When I stand up and say, ‘Free Education, Further Education, For Everyone’, it’s because I believe that anyone should have the chance to find their passion through education and be able to access it. Area reviews could lead to different campuses being more ‘specialised’ in what courses they deliver. As Lynne Sedgmore, former director of the 157 Group has said, ‘The fact that most FE colleges currently undertake a richer and more complex set of missions, which inter-relate and can be mutually supportive, is routinely ignored’ in this idea. If I live in Chesterfield and want to study motor vehicle engineering, but the nearest specialist college is over and hour away in Barnsley, what chance do I have? Students are best placed to provide this insight to those making the decisions in area reviews.
- The diversity of our sector is what makes it amazing and area reviews need to reflect this, both in the process and the outcomes of decisions made. On Wednesday last week, I was at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and sat on the Area Review Steering Group as the only black woman on a table of around 25 people from across the FE sector. This is not what our sector looks like. I’m passionate about FE because of its diversity in the students it delivers for. I made the case on Wednesday last week for diversity in all parts of the area review process, to get more black, disabled, LGBT and women’s voices around the table, both nationally and in each area review. If we are going to have a truly liberated curriculum for everyone, we need to make sure that those making the decisions are representative of our student body.
Going forward, I will continue to make the case for learner voice to be heard loud and clear in each area review. NUS will be working with unions in each area to convene a series of regional ‘roundtables’, bringing together learner representatives in all the areas affected to ensure that learner voice is a central part of these reviews. We will help reps put their case to the area review boards and make sure that decision that are made about the future of FE provision deliver the best deal for students
Into the future, I’m committed to making sure our members are prepared and supported to plan for learner representation in potentially new and larger institutions. We will be learning from what has happened in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in previous years and look to support unions through possible mergers and making the case for independent, resourced student representation.
This is a huge time of change in FE, but I believe we are ready for the fight to make sure students get the best deal out of area reviews.