Ensuring there are opportunities to study and protecting the college experience is essential
When the original budget plans for this year were published, students were extremely worried about the future of their colleges. Proposed cuts to student support threatened to shut some of the poorest students out of education, while cuts to the colleges themselves meant staff, courses, even campuses looked to be at risk.
Recognising the dangers, students had to act.
Tens of thousands of emails were sent to MSPs and demonstrations were held across the country.
Current, former, and students of the future, alongside their communities, came together to make the case for greater investment in our colleges, and were delighted when the proposed cut to student support, and a significant chunk of the planned college budget cuts, were reversed during the budget process.
But a key concern for students is why this needed to happen in the first place. We know that colleges are crucial to Scotland in so many ways – training the workforce of the future, providing a vital link to university, offering a second chance at education – and even more important during the current downturn. Yet the original budget just didn’t reflect this. Not only that, but the Spending Review as it stands – the budget plan for the next two years – proposes further cuts to college budgets.
For students, this is a significant worry – what is really important to us is protecting opportunities to study at college, protecting access to these opportunities, and protecting the college experience, all of which are threatened by budget reductions.
Student support Student support has a huge role to play in protecting access to college. Debates this year on student support were concerned with whether or not £11m of additional bursary funding provided last year was a one-off payment or a permanent increase. For students, this discussion was of little relevance – however you looked at the bursary budget last year, statistics from the Scottish Funding Council showed that it wasn’t enough to meet student demand. A decision not to continue the funding this year would have been hugely damaging – with cuts to funding for some students, and no funding at all for others.
College bursary funding is provided on a first-come, first-served basis so once a college runs out of money, it can no longer fund students. And without student support, many students just can’t afford to go to college.
Students have been concerned about this funding system for many years and we’re really pleased to have secured agreement from the Scottish Government to work towards ending this, and devising a funding system where college students have an entitlement to support. But to make any new system work, the budget must be protected at its current level. Students need a fair and fully funded student support system.
College budgets Colleges themselves also need to be properly funded to ensure that they can continue to provide the same number of opportunities.
Students across Scotland welcomed the commitment from a majority of MSPs to protect college places, and will be watching closely to ensure this commitment is met. However, we know that budgets are tight and this won’t be easy. But during this a period of significant change for the college sector, we have a great opportunity to look to innovative new ways to boost funding for colleges.
A key aim for students – and others in the sector – is a fairer and more flexible learning journey for all – allowing individual students to choose the path through education that best suits them. In the past, differing treatment of HNC/HND and degree qualifications has meant some students have been forced to repeat qualifications, or it has left them unable to progress. We would welcome consideration of how we can place greater value on HNC/HND qualifications, bringing them in line with degree study. Colleges also play a vital role in supporting ‘non-traditional’ students and those from poorer backgrounds into higher education and university and we’d also like to see consideration given to how this important work on articulation between college and university could be better recognised in the way colleges are funded.
We’d also like to see greater recognition in funding settlements for the key role colleges have to play in addressing youth unemployment. Colleges are uniquely placed to deliver opportunities to help young people into work and to discover their talents and ambitions for the future. And this is true for wider unemployment initiatives too – it is not only young people who are the victims of the recession and more and more people are turning to our colleges to survive the downturn by learning new skills. We can’t close the doors to these people just because of their age – these may be people who were never given the chance the first time around.
Students of all ages need a college sector which is properly funded in a way which recognises the contribution it makes to Scotland.
At the college level But students also know that it’s not just about the money – it’s what you do with it that counts.
Individual college leaders must make sure that they can deliver on the commitments that the Scottish Government has made to students.
But for students it’s also about more than numbers. Places must be maintained but protecting local access is absolutely crucial. We know that colleges have a fantastic record for reaching out to some of our most vulnerable communities and offering life-changing opportunities. We need to sustain this record by retaining vital access points and course provision across Scotland. And at the same time, the quality of student experience needs to be paramount – not just the educational experience but the wider support services too.
Colleges also need to make the most of investments by working to improve retention.
People may leave college for positive reasons but many represent a real loss to the system – a missed opportunity to support someone to reach their full potential, but also a loss of public resource too. The impact on the individual can be incredibly damaging too – many may be lost to education forever. Students need individual colleges to be focused on protecting, then improving, educational opportunities and the quality of their experience.
Regionalisation Students recognise that the restructuring of the college sector through regionalisation could be a key way to address inequalities which have developed between colleges. But at the same time there are clear criteria which need to be met to make sure any changes are positive developments in student eyes.
Key to this is student involvement. Students need to be involved every step of the way to make sure the results of regionalisation will work for the students of the future.
And this is not about tokenism or box-ticking – we are clear that true student involvement means students from every campus sitting on partnership and merger boards, being involved in all regionalisation discussions, and signing-off on outcome agreements. And the outcomes, as well as the processes, are vital – students want to see outcome agreements deliver on all of their key aims above – on local access, course provision, quality and retention.
Agreements must also deliver on protecting access beyond geography– maintaining colleges’ positive record on taking in students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, protecting opportunities for disabled students, and opportunities for lower qualified students and those who may be furthest from the labour market.
Regionalisation also presents an important opportunity to improve the quality of student representation in colleges. This has been patchy across the sector, leading to inequalities for students and the absence of a clear articulation of the student voice, which would be of huge benefit for many colleges. Developing stronger students’ associations will allow students and their representatives to have greater input into the quality of their learning experience and to the wider college experience. Ultimately, strong, sector-wide student representation will be the only way we can truly judge the success of the restructuring project as it progresses. Unless we have a strong and independent student voice, we won’t know whether change is working either at institution level or across the nation. Students need strong structures in place so they can be heard at all levels.
Partnerships for change NUS Scotland will be supporting students through the regionalisation process through Partnerships for Change, our new project supported by sparqs and the Scottish Funding Council. We’ll be engaging with the change processes to make sure the student voice is heard throughout and is truly influencing the decisions. We’ll also be developing new structures and processes to ensure that, within the new regions, students can shape and influence college life, and the student experience. Partnerships for Change will also be contributing to national developments and the sharing of best practice. We’re really excited to be involved in the project – it’s clear that across the sector we all have a shared aim in making our colleges stronger than ever before.
Students need a sector which is working together and focused on this goal – to create colleges where student needs are the priority and the focus of activity, and the student voice is listened to throughout. But students also need a sector which is protected from threats to funding – and this means we need to continue to make the case in Scotland for what colleges do for this country, for individuals, families, communities, businesses and the economy – and we need to be proactive, positive and united in making that case.