College students and staff met the politicians in the general election campaign, says Neil Merrick

Midway through the general election campaign, Accrington and Rossendale College received a slightly unusual request from the Conservative Party.

Midway through the general election campaign, Accrington and Rossendale College received a slightly unusual request from the Conservative Party.

Would it be possible, the college was asked, for Michael Howard's helicopter to land on its football pitch so that he could transfer to his campaign battle bus before meeting voters in the key Labour marginal?

Although the college principal Nancy Cookson realised the Tory leader would only be on the college's premises for a few minutes, she was determined not to miss the opportunity to lobby him over the funding gap between colleges and schools. As he left his helicopter, she challenged Howard over the issue, but he was not in the mood to make commitments. Replying that he already knew school sixth-formers receive more money than teenagers in further education, Howard left without speaking to students or even visiting the college's highly-praised construction department. According to Cookson, students at the Lancashire college are as excited about the election as the population as a whole. "There is a large amount of apathy," she says.

But across the country, some staff and students have had the opportunity to play a more constructive role in the election, with high-profile politicians agreeing to question-and-answer sessions alongside the inevitable photo opportunity. At Hartpury College in Gloucestershire, one week before his visit to Accrington, Michael Howard extended his stay from one hour to two so that he could discuss the funding issue over lunch with college principal Malcolm Wharton.

Tory strategists requested the visit, in another Labour marginal, after education minister Kim Howells visited the college in early April to open its new £5.5m sports academy.

While Howard took part in a staged line-out with the college's rugby team, students did not have the opportunity to ask questions. When Menzies Campbell visited City of Bristol College, the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesman spent 45 minutes answering questions on issues such as further education funding, university tuition fees and Iraq. About three quarters of those taking part, which included politics and media studies students, were of voting age. Nella Stokes, the college's head of learner services, says some students were as interested in talking to journalists accompanying Campbell as quizzing the politician, but still demonstrated they were switched onto politics. "It helped raise their political awareness," she says.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy visited at least two colleges and promised Mark Bramwell, principal of Totton College, Hampshire, that he would highlight further education in speeches during the campaign. "I believe there is value in raising your concerns directly with politicians on a one-to-one basis," says Bramwell.

Kennedy spent his last few hours before becoming a father talking to students at Godalming College, Surrey. "There is a lot of support for the Lib Dem policies on tuition fees but they didn't give him an easy ride," says Dan Wright, head of history and politics.

Further education does not seem to have featured heavily in the schedules of many leading Labour figures, although Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott visited Tamworth and Lichfield College during the first week of the campaign. "The visit was very stage managed but it's good for students to see high-profile people in the college," says assistant principal John Fontaine. "I didn't get the impression we were getting the hard-sell."

According to the Association of Colleges, a few colleges are reluctant to welcome politicians in case they are seen as supporting one candidate over another. But the majority recognise the benefit to students, as well as to the sector as a whole.

"Politicians are more likely to meet voters in a college [than a school]," says Chris Walden, the AoC's parliamentary officer. "There are first-time voters, as well as adult students and large numbers of staff."

Some colleges, while ignored by the likes of Michael Howard and John Prescott, invited local candidates to election meetings. Ben Williams, politics tutor at King George V College in Southport, says politics students have an advantage if there is a general election while they are on their course. He was impressed by the tough questions that students put to Tory and UK Independence candidates , challenging their policies on immigration and Europe. "Some students seem to know more about politics than the candidates," says Williams. "There is excitement at voting for the first time. They realise they're taking part in something important."