Student voices will be heard everywhere in Wales

Becky Ricketts is the President of NUS Wales

The publication of the Welsh edition of the College of the Future report shines a light on a sector in Wales that has gone through significant change in recent years – and faces further changes in the coming years.

As the launch coincides with the launch of NUS Wales’ manifesto for the 2021 Senedd elections, I am pleased to see so much in the report that we can support, not least on our own calls for proper student voice structures in colleges.

This report lays down a number of significant markers for the sector and Welsh Government to respond to, and at NUS Wales we look forward to pushing for these recommendations to become policy. With much of the report grounded in the principles set out by the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act and the work of the Future Generations Commissioner, the policies are very much the logical next steps of that vision.

Students unions

The most exciting part of the report for me is on students’ unions. Further recognition of their value is always welcome, and to have the support for our calls for fully funded, autonomous and independent student voice structures in all post-16 settings is hugely gratifying. This year has shown more than any that whatever safeguards are in place for students, the best guarantor of students’ rights are students themselves. Student voice in colleges in Wales has steadily improved, but the time is right for proper reform to empower the outstanding student volunteers, and the staff that support them.

Colleges are no longer, and arguably never were, a stepping-stone from school to work or university. Recognition of their true worth is being seen more widely and the Welsh Government has shown a commitment to this. What has lagged is the perception of the students themselves. Too often seen as passive learners, or “children” without the capacity, interest or patience to take an active part in governance or enhancement (a poor argument even if they were all under 18), decision makers and the wider sector often forget that more than 50% of the students in the sector are over 18.

I do not expect to see Cardiff SU recreated in Pembrokeshire College (yet…) but there is so much outstanding work being done by students that is existing in a vacuum now that is crying out for a proper framework and support to help replicate the culture and principles that exist in the HE sector.

Properly supported student voice structures also go hand in hand with something long identified as needing more attention in the post-16 sector. The 2017 Public Good and Prosperous Wales consultation revealed a need for a much greater quality and quantity of guidance available for students. Whilst advice services need to be run by qualified staff, the links to current students and to student reps is invaluable. It’s not just on career plans that students need advice, but on wellbeing, financial support and much more.

The report’s call for a right to lifelong learning for all in Wales mirrors similar calls in our own manifesto and that of the Future Generations Commissioner. Covid-19 and Brexit are only accelerating a process that has been going on for several decades. Technological advances and global economic changes mean that no government or employer can guarantee a lifelong career anymore; it is only just that we have a lifelong right to train and develop in response to that.

Coherent and connected

Of course, the right to lifelong learning cannot exist in a vacuum. Major reforms to the post-compulsory education sector are a topic of debate in Wales at the moment, and again this report lends more voice to the Hazelkorn Review’s call for a coherent and connected tertiary system. Wales has an opportunity to create a tertiary system where the needs of students, the community and the country can be met – not through competition or the market, but through an understanding that all three are reliant on each other.

Colleges are lynchpins in their communities. Just as Wales has been disempowered and left behind by other parts of the UK in terms of economic development, outside of the urban south much of Wales needs more financial support and economic coherency. Colleges are vital in supporting the small businesses and communities that are going to be key in developing the areas left behind by the changes we have seen. We must do everything that we can to support them and the best start for that would be to have a sector all working together and not in competition. There must be choice for students on where and what and when to study, but let it be an honest offer from everyone, with fair and just support and funding.

There is much to learn from Scotland, and Will Stringer’s blog on the College of the Future report asked the question – “What kind of students are students invited to be?”. I can’t answer for anyone else, but I want our students to be engaged in their learning, engaged in their colleges and engaged in the world around them. We fail them if we don’t show them the trust and respect to be able to lead and make the case for change properly. Wales will only succeed in the future if our young people feel they have a stake in the future – the strongest way to make that happen is with by letting their voices be heard.

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