What do we want regulation to do in Wales?

Jez Harvey is a Student Voice Coordinator

As the process of student officer induction in SUs gets underway across the country, staff will be wondering how to get everything into the mix without having an officer team that needs a sabbatical before Welcome Week even starts.

Plenty of new officers (including a few returning officers) will be wondering what exactly they’ve got themselves into.

In Wales though, there is one area that I worry will not get the attention that is needed.

A new regime

From next April, the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER) will open its doors – starting a long process of creating registration conditions and a set of codes by which Post-16 institutions in Wales will need to operate.

We don’t yet know how that process is going to start, or who will be sitting at the Commission table.

We do know, however, that whatever is produced could have a significant impact on the student experience in Wales. As the former policy lead at NUS Wales during the formation of the Bill, it was an uphill struggle to get the interests of students into the final Act.

As Becky Ricketts, former NUS Wales President, wrote here that whilst a significant amount of positives made it to the final version, it was harder than it should have been.

The original draft of the Bill had an entire strategic aim on “Collaboration between providers and trade unions”. Student voice, let alone SUs specifically, did not get a mention. Only as a subsection to a wider strategic aim on “Continuous improvement” was the importance of student (sorry, learner) voice added.

Protecting students?

Student protection plans made it in, but were only required once the Commission had notified the provider that such a document was necessary. This was despite the Bill being drafted around the time that Greenwich School of Management was going into administration – by the time the regulator had noticed, it was far too late for a plan to have much practical use.

Whilst Wales doesn’t have quite the same sort of provider (yet?), the financial footing of many of Wales’ institutions is far from ideal – and plenty of courses, campuses (and pathways on those course) close every year as a result.

As well as these, Learner Engagement Codes’ will be being produced, as well as working out how to comply with a registration condition on staff and student welfare. These can also have a positive impact on the student experience at institutions across Wales.

There’s also the new integrated Welfare duty – which will cover mental health and wellbeing, student safety and so on. For this to have an impact, it will need to go beyond bland statements of intent and get closer to the sort of Duty of Care being debated (and rejected) in England in recent months,

Sadly, it’s unlikely that much attention is going to be given to prepping SU officers for this. Whilst this work is only going to start this year, one of the reasons we struggled to get much traction with the Welsh Government to improve the Bill was that we had left it too late to involve SU officers in some of these discussions.

Getting prepped now

We have an opportunity to start conversations now with them internally, as many of these things will be institution-specific, but we also need to have a wider conversation as a Welsh student movement on the wider picture.

What would we like regulation to secure, or guarantee, or cause to happen that doesn’t happen now? What actually do we think is the minimum expectation on student welfare? How can we ensure that the Commissioners are kept informed on our terms?

There is going to be a role for NUS Wales in this, with the expected appointment of the President to an “associate” position on the Commission (another aggravation, and a decision made against the wishes of the sector and the Senedd Committee on Children, Young People and, Education), but individual students’ unions will need to be taking active steps as well to ensure their officers know what is coming down the tracks.

These can be tricky questions to put to officers at the start of the journey – trickier still when we remember that we now have an FE sector to work even closer with. But the opportunity is too big. We missed one opportunity (for many good reasons) with the Bill – we need to ensure that we don’t repeat this as the Commission approaches.

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