Thursday 28-01-2016 - 11:26
The government is trying to pull the plug on Further Education and we're not going to let them. That's why on Friday 29 January, we're launching our #FEunplugged campaign. Ahead of the launch, we caught up with James bangert, President of Sheffield College Students' Union, whose institution is one of the first 84 colleges involved in the government's review of post-16 education aka 'Area Reviews'.
Tell us about your role as President at Sheffield College Students’ Union and what makes your institution unique.
My role is to represent all 22,000 students who attend Sheffield College. My responsibilities extend from setting up events that our students can take part in to representing their views to the governing body and even campaigning on their behalf on national issues.
One of the most unique aspects of our union is the fact that we are an essential and fully integrated part of the workings of Sheffield College - from the management right down to classroom teaching. This integration allows [us] to fully represent our students' needs.
Sheffield was confirmed as one of the 84 colleges to be involved in the first wave of the government’s review of post-16 education. What’s happened since this announcement last September?
The Area Review process is still in the planning stages. Sheffield was timetabled to begin its consultation period in late February however this has been pushed back. Whilst this can seem frustrating it is actually a positive step. Sheffield is one of the first to go through this process and we need to make sure that at the end of the day whatever decisions are made they need to be for the good of our student population. If that means taking more time to facilitate this then I welcome it.
Whilst this is happening the students’ union is collecting thoughts and feedback from students across the college which we will then take to meetings as evidence of students’ opinion towards area reviews.
Sheffield is just one of ten general FE or sixth form colleges from the ‘Sheffield City region’ involved in these reviews. Have you made much contact with your counterparts at these colleges to discuss the impact these reviews could have for the area?
Sheffield College Students’ Union always tries to link up with neighboring Unions especially when there is an issue that affects us all. Our union recently met with other unions from our region to draft an NUS document on our concerns over the area review process in the Sheffield region. Not only was this a good networking opportunity for our unions but it showed that we are a united front in our attitudes towards the process.
I myself have been to other area review consultations with other union from across the country as a member of NUS’ FE Committee. Here I could share my experience and help support other institutions that are about to start the area review procedure.
What do you perceive to be the main aims of the Area Reviews?
Well if we look at the government’s official line then the main aims for Area Reviews are to financially stabilise FE colleges across the country and to give students the opportunity to attend specialised colleges that will provide the top facilities in whatever course student’s wishes to study.
Whilst I agree that some specialisation would indeed be beneficial and some colleges that are financially inadequate would also benefit, I ultimately believe that if Area Reviews are carried out poorly without student opinion being taken into account we may see a large drop in students attending FE Colleges.
If this should happen it will cripple the FE sector and leave thousands of students without an avenue to education. The government is using the Area Review process as the answer on how to keep FE viable, however, if we look at Scotland who have already been through this process we can see that the colleges there are no better off financially than before and have had a drop in student admission.
I ultimately believe that Area Reviews could potentially be used as a prelude to the government trying to wind up the funding of Further Education. It is something that we must all be wary of and we must be prepared to fight the government if it comes to pass.
What are the biggest threats and opportunities of the Area Reviews from Sheffield College’s perspective?
The biggest opportunities for Sheffield College students are that they will be part of a strong region with lots of colleges that have outstanding teaching and outstanding facilities. If we can share these things within our region then it can only be a good thing for our students.
However there are many threats to our students. The Sheffield region is geographically very big and if specialisation was to occur and some of our students who were studying a specific subject were forced to travel across cities every morning this would create a massive barrier to education as students would not be able to financially support themselves travelling those distances every day. Other threats include young parents who may have to drop their children off at day care. Taking children across south Yorkshire to attend a class in another city is not only stressful on the student but is extremely stressful to their young child. Again this would be another barrier to our students.
Ultimately there are many potential threats to our students but at the moment it is all hypothetical until we know what the conclusion of the planning meeting is. Only then will we know what barriers our students may face.
You’re a member of NUS’ FE Zone Committee, can you give us the main reasons why FE students ought to engage with our #FEunplugged campaign, which launches tomorrow?
Students should get involved for one reason. We must show the government that we cannot be trampled down. We must show that Further Education has just as loud a voice has Higher Education and we are here to stay. If all our students come out and back the #FEunplugged campaign we cannot be ignored. We are a stronger force united then divided and our students need to realise that if they don’t stand up and fight for FE now, there may be no FE for their children in the future.