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We’ve got nothing to lose - fighting cuts to FE

Tuesday 18-08-2015 - 09:41

The government’s cuts are having a massive impact on our colleges. Courses are being closed, entire college sites shut down, staff are losing jobs and FE students are struggling to make ends meet without sufficient financial support.

The Tories are stepping up their attacks on further education, so we as a student movement need to step up our campaign to defend education for all.

That is why I joined students and local residents occupying the Camberwell campus of the Lewisham Southwark College a couple of weeks ago.  The occupation was a result of decisions made by the college governors and by the local authority to shut down and privatise parts of the college - to the detriment of both staff and students.

This attack on further education was particularly personal for me.  I'm the former President of Lewisham Southwark College - I finished my term in office just last month.  If it wasn't for FE, particularly Lewisham Southwark College, I would not be where I am today.  I wouldn't be able to make a change and get our voices heard by influencers and decision makers.

It was important for me to take a firm stance to support my former college, using my position as NUS Vice President (Further Education) to get this issue out in the open, spread the word and empower other students' unions, students and local residents to take action, stand up and fight for what I believe is the heart of our communities.

The governors of Lewisham Southwark College met on Tuesday 14 July and voted almost unanimously to close the Camberwell site of Lewisham Southwark College by the end of July 2015 and sell it off. 

This site is used by 300 students for learning basic skills and ESOL (English as a Second Other Language). This attack comes on top of huge cuts at the college, which has led to around 50 staff taking voluntary redundancy and left another ten facing compulsory redundancy. Many other staff members have recently resigned as they are fed up with Tory cuts and the way in which the management of the college is responding to these attacks. As a result we have seen a reduction in the dyslexia support provision and the closure of the Trade Union Studies department.

On top of this, Southwark Council - without any notice or consultation with students, staff, the local community or even the principal - announced a detailed 30-page proposal on 8 July which has been sent to the FE Commissioner to de-merge Lewisham and Southwark College by the end of July 2015 and to close the two Southwark sites by August 2015. 

They will remain closed for a year and will then re-open as a brand new college in August 2016 under a new management, with the current Waterloo campus being the main hub in addition to the Camberwell site. The council says that existing students who need to carry on their courses will be directed to other colleges in August 2015. 

The council wants to commission up to seven named providers to run courses at this new college: some public, some private. This could lead to fragmentation and possible privatisation of the college and college staff could be working for different providers on different contracts. The proposal has a narrow focus on vocational courses which will be done to meet the needs of local employers. Despite not consulting with key stakeholders, the students and staff at the college, the council has been consulting with City fat cat firms and local employers like Price Waterhouse Coopers, News UK (Rupert Murdoch’s News International) and big hospitals like Guys and St Thomas’.

Although I’m not surprised by the college’s decision to sell the Camberwell campus, or the hidden proposal drawn up by Southwark Council, this really was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. I realised how necessary it was for students and local residents to take direct action alongside a long-term strategy to campaign against all forms of privatisation and closures to FE institutions.

Colleges up and down the country are at risk of closure in the near future because of cuts to the FE sector and the potential loss of vital resources required to support students in successfully completing their qualifications.

Our FE institutions are becoming more at risk as time goes on and it seems the government is totally disregarding the vital impact FE plays in the lives of those most marginalised in society: those from the most deprived communities.  

It is women students, Black students, international students, disabled students, LGBT students, mature students, student carers and parents who will be the hardest hit and most affected by these changes and cuts.

The government, local authorities and decision-makers don’t respect the views and voices of those within FE. I believe this is because they underestimate students studying at FE colleges – they think we are politically apathetic and do not understand how these attacks ultimately impact upon us, our futures and our families. We must prove them wrong. 

I understand the importance of having to articulate yourself around a board table, presenting facts and evidence to governors and senior management teams in order to affect change and create a better learning experience for students.

But I also believe that when you have the opportunity to get the attention of those decision makers, it is appropriate to shake thing up and start an honest and progressive conversation to get priorities on the agenda.

As NUS Vice President (Further Education) I am here to help you fight back against these cuts, campus by campus. From petitions to peaceful, direct action, we’ve got to build a big movement with a range of tactics to have an impact.

I am privileged to have been elected to this position and to be trusted to make a difference for those I represent. Because of this I will do whatever it takes to get the issues affecting FE on the agenda – locally and nationally - using this platform to show the government that we will not accept FE being used as a puck in the wider agenda of their austerity game.

We have nothing to lose in setting the tone to ensure FE is talked about and the benefits to the people it serves are recognised. This is not a personal attack on individual colleges and senior management teams or governors - this is about the future of the next generation and making sure everyone has a chance to reach their full potential.

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