Scottish college student associations and the citizens of the future

College student associations have a role to play in the wider community. Will Stringer gazes into the future of Scotland's SAs.

As universities have students’ unions (or students’ guilds), colleges have student associations (SAs). What should an SA of the future look like?

The recently published report from the independent Commission on the College of the Future testifies that

Colleges can and must play a strong and central role in responding to challenges and transformations, from global megatrends like climate change to immediate crises such as COVID-19, as well as the changing demands, aspirations and expectations of people, employers and communities.”

Within a rapidly-changing economy, colleges are key to responding to this ‘new now’ we find ourselves in. They can help retrain the workforce, promote inclusivity and improve social cohesion and wellbeing.T o those who have worked with and in SAs and SUs I am sure themes of inclusivity, social cohesion and wellbeing feel familiar. College SAs have the potential to do something unique, if nurtured, resourced and championed – they can couple this partnered position of a community-focused organisation with participative and deliberative democracy that reaches out beyond the walls (or beyond Microsoft Teams calls) to improve local and national society.

So, what does that mean in practice?

In 2017, Oliver Escobar asked the question ‘What kind of citizens are citizens invited to be?’. If we reframe this with students in mind, it becomes “what kind of students are students invited to be?”. To begin thinking about what this could mean in practice means a look toward burgeoning approaches to citizen participation.

In Scotland, we can look across to the Scottish Government and their continued work to develop and improve citizen participation, with pilots including a Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland (report due later this year), and participatory budgeting targets for councils. These are large multi-million pound projects, a far-cry from the limited resources of our college SAs. But, we’re missing a trick by not seeing these as fundamental in producing engaged and informed citizens that co-produce the vision for Scotland.

Due to colleges’ position within communities, the effect of participation work can be seismic, breathing much-needed new and flourishing life into our democratic spaces. But colleges can only do this with the help of strong, effective and sustainable SAs. They have all the markings of organisations that could empower citizens, but instead are often left to the side as a nice to have for a committee or meeting. We have to be clear that college SAs offer something that many other parts of our society cannot offer – they are uniquely membership-based, covering a wide section of local society, from 16-year old school leavers to older adults retraining for a new start. At the same time, they are nimble organisations that respond to the needs of their members – a researchers-wonderland that is asking to be tapped, one that could look at the bringing together of projects including participatory budgeting, decision making, and citizens assemblies. Gilded with these experiences, citizens can feed into other spaces, improving and stimulating democracy – a potential stake into the heart of rising populism.

SAs in action

In Scotland, we have seen significant development from having a sustained Scottish Funding Council-funded project, the Development of Strong and Effective College Student Associations. The project is delivered by NUS Scotland and Sparqs to develop SAs within colleges. Colleges where learners previously had limited voice are now co-delivering projects, a partnership approach that radically rethinks our approaches to power. By nurturing this style of “doing” within SAs and colleges, this can have a significant impact on those within traditional positions of power, and on learners. We can use these experiences in numerous other parts of our daily lives, from community-partnered delivery of councils through to service users shaping their service provision. But just as local businesses need to be a partner in colleges of the future, so must SAs.

We know that there is significant disparity across the UK with how Student Unions and SAs within colleges are supported to deliver this radical optimistic future. Drawing back to Oliver Escobar’s quote, to not do so deprives the student from the opportunity to learn key skills, a sense of collectivity and connectivity within the local community and the college, and prevents the college from responding to the needs of the now.

We know of some of the reasons why this is a challenge, most notably the precariousness of funding for the sector. However, with the onset of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future report we have an opportunity to drive change across the sector within Scotland and further afield. We need to take this opportunity to collectively imagine and deliver on a college Student Association of the future that responds to the needs of local and national society. It could be the hopeful beacon that we all need within these “powerful times”.

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