How to give students their say on campus

Only two-thirds of FE colleges have student unions. Neil Merrick explains why this needs to change
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The Independent Online

Earlier this year, two students were expelled from a Birmingham college after criticising its decision to ban religious groups on the campus.

In the absence of an active students' union at Matthew Boulton College, the case of Assed Baig and Darrel Williams was taken up by the National Union of Students. To date, the NUS has not succeeded in getting the students reinstated.

The college argued that an article published by the students in a newsletter was offensive. The principal, Christine Braddock, declined to comment on the affair, which may scupper their chances of going to university.

According to Ellie Russell, NUS vice-president for further education, the Birmingham case is not simply about freedom of speech but the rights of students to be represented at college. "It shows the importance of having an active students' union," she says.

An NUS survey published last year suggested that only two-thirds of FE colleges have students' unions and, in many cases, they are poorly funded and have little influence. Just two-thirds of colleges with a union allowed students a place on their board, and 17 per cent of unions did not even have an office.

Unlike in higher education, FE has no culture of students' unions. Some point to the large turnover of FE students and the fact that many adults attend college part-time, but the NUS does not see either factor as a valid excuse. "People try to put it down to student apathy, but the right structures are not in place. College principals don't buy into it," says Russell, who is the NUS's first vice-president to be elected solely by FE students.

During his review of further education last year, Sir Andrew Foster emerged as a somewhat surprising champion of students. Concluding that the system of student representation in FE was "underdeveloped", he called on colleges to publish students' opinions in annual learner reports and for the Learning and Skills Council to set up local learner panels.

Lynne Sedgmore, the chief executive of the Centre for Excellence in Leadership and a former college principal, says the Foster report provides students with a "wonderful platform" to get themselves heard more effectively. "The learner is at the heart of everything we do," she says. "Their voice needs to be heard in a much more systematic way."

After three years as union president at Chichester College, Lisa French was asked to become the college's first student activities officer. She now supports the union, which includes a 25-strong executive and a council comprising 200 students.

The union, which receives £40,000 a year from college funds, has seats on the board, quality forum and other committees. "We work very well with senior management," French says. "They are very supportive of the union and actively seek out its views on every decision the college takes."

Principal Richard Parker believes the union gives students a vital point of contact with college managers and governors. "We get a fantastic insight into their experience at college."

At City College, Norwich, the students' union is fully consulted on issues such as car parking and smoking; it persuaded managers that it would be a mistake to ban smoking across the campus and drive smokers on to the street. It also trains course representatives.

Union president Danny Douglas says that, while there has been a union in the college since the 1970s, it has been more active in recent years. "There is so much raw but natural talent among students," he says. "The best thing is seeing the transformation of a pupil into a student so that they share the responsibility of running the college."

Principal Dick Palmer says colleges should not to be put off by any idea that unions may lead to rowdy parties or militancy. "Students are not the obnoxious bunch some believe," he says. "They are there to help solve problems and can come up with wonderfully innovative ideas."

As Russell prepares to seek re-election at the NUS's annual conference this month, she hopes other colleges will follow Norwich and Chichester and that the union's "Loud and Clear" campaign for better representation will be a success.

"There has never been a better climate for us to push for what we want," she says. "Foster has given us the opportunity to see that something happens across the country."