Supporting strong FE unions and sabbatical officers across the UK

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This week as hundreds of students descend on Brighton for NUS UK National Conference, I’ll be launching an exciting piece of work for further education students’ unions across the UK.

With minimal budgets and very little buy-in from colleges’ senior management teams, learner voice in further education in Wales is at a crisis point.  That’s why, when I was elected as NUS Wales Deputy President in March 2016 I promised to make further education students’ unions’ development a priority.

What have I been doing to change that?
I know from my experience as an FE college president that underwent a complex merger spanning 14 campuses that student leaders need personalised support.

That’s why this year I have visited college campuses across the length and breadth of Wales from Grŵp Llandrillo Menai to Coleg Sir Gâr, Gower College Swansea to Coleg Cambria, and everywhere in between; meeting with FE student leaders and giving them guidance in their roles to suit their types of learners and campuses.

The student leaders I’ve worked with this year are truly fantastic. Despite an almost complete lack of funding, support, or guidance, they are making brilliant change on their campuses every day.

However, the majority of them are unpaid volunteers studying full-time courses. These students are leading their students’ unions the best that they can with very limited time and often no staff support at all. Not only that, often their own lecturers don’t recognise their commitment to learner voice as a positive thing.

My colleagues in NUS-USI released their 2017 Student Wellbeing Research Report earlier this month, and that showed that student mental health and well-being in Northern Ireland are on the verge of “crisis”.  There are plenty of other studies also showing this to be the case across the UK.

I have seen so many officers leave office at the end of their term with poorer mental health than at the start, as a direct result of the pressure on them from work.

What’s the answer?
Leading a students’ union is a full-time job and should therefore be funded and treated as so. The benefits of having a developed, funded and supported students’ union are immense. Just take a look at Scotland.

The work of my colleagues in NUS Scotland has resulted in the Scottish Government linking institutions’ funding to colleges’ own investment in students’ unions. Now, every college in Scotland has a students’ association with at least one sabbatical officer.

And those students’ associations and sabbatical officers are able to dedicate their time, fully, to representing students and campaigning for positive change on-campus.

It’s time we have that deal in FE institutions across the UK! That’s why I wanted to create a toolkit – a resource, a guide, a how-to – all about sabbatical officers in FE. Not long after starting this piece of work, I realised that this was very much needed not just in Wales, but in England and Northern Ireland too, so I’ve made sure that this is applicable and useful to all our FE membership.

What’s the next step?
We’ll be launching the FE Sabbatical Toolkit at a fringe meeting at NUS UK National Conference this week.

Where? Room Syndicate 3, NUS UK National Conference
When? 5.00-6.00pm, Wednesday 26 April 2017

Come along to get your own copy and to hear from our expert FE panel.

The launch of this toolkit is by no means the end of story though. There’s still a lot of work to be done, a lot of influencing to do, and lots of student leaders who need support. I’m looking forward to carrying on that work over the next year.

In the meantime, I hope to see as many of you as possible at NUS UK National Conference in Brighton this week, and do come along to the launch on Wednesday.

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