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Let's focus on students, not structures

By Stephanie Lloyd

Wednesday 1 August 2012 NUS Wales

Today the Minister announced his intentions to merge the universities of Glamorgan, Newport and Cardiff Met. This is a bold move, and if supported and resourced properly, it is an opportunity to radically improve education provision in the South East area of Wales.

There has been much debate on the issue in recent months, not all of it constructive and not all of it helpful. 

And every time there is a debate on what structures we should have, it is time spent not talking about what really matters –access to education, the student experience and job prospects. We want to bring the debate back to the heart of the issue – back to students.

The students we talk to are worried less about institutions and titles, and more about where their course will be, what facilities are on offer and what support they receive throughout their course.  This should be everyone’s focus from here on in.

Now that the Government has made its intentions clear, we are committed to working with all those involved to work, taking what’s great about these three universities and build them into a new and better institution. We just hope all those involved are committed to doing the same.

But what about the bigger picture?

These changes might be what university students studying in South East Wales need, but what about the whole of Wales? What about the bigger picture?

For the past year students in Wales have told us to think bigger, bolder and to be leading the debate on education, not just responding.

They asked us to set out our vision for education in Wales.  We quickly realised that it is no longer good enough to just tinker around the edges with a system that is broken and outdated.

We have categories for every type of student, for every type of provision and every type of institutions – each loaded with prestige and value, or otherwise. Higher education vs. further education, colleges vs. universities, traditional vs. modern, academic vs. vocational, research vs. teaching, formal vs. informal – the list goes on and on. These divisions are arbitrary and out dated, and create artificial barriers that disenfranchise and marginalise students at every level.

Indeed, our system is based on one that values one particular route of study over all others – the academic journey from A-level to under-graduate, right through to Phd study. We are trapped in seeing education as only a linear process.

Our pre-occupation with the ‘academic’ does us a disservice overall, not only does it most advantage the most advantaged in society, but it devalues the wider value of education, especially the important areas of vocational skills training. 

Imagine an education where the divide between HE and FE no longer exists – where you could be simultaneously studying for engineering apprenticeship in a college and also a module in history.

Where the student parent can dip in and out of a degree, studying on a truly flexible basis and not constrained by a three year full-time model.

Where highly demanding and relevant skills based courses are given the equivalent prestige as academic study – where higher education leads to further education, and not just the other way around.

This is an education system that is about a journey, where the majority of society is invested and participating in throughout their life, an education that we can start to call universal.

Throughout the next year, and honestly decades to come we are going to be asking students in Wales one thing, to forget what you think you know about education and to come on a journey with us.

A journey that is going to shape the way we talk about education for generations to come,  that is based on the fundamental values we hold.

What we will talk about is tertiary education – education from post-compulsory level onwards, including courses studied at both further education colleges and universities, from degrees to diplomas to A-levels.

Tertiary is more than just a technical term, it is about making it our idea of education - what we want from education as a whole, what should it mean to people, wider society and the economy; and how should people can engage with it. 

You may already know that this is a narrative that is bigger than just NUS Wales, this is also going to be a wider NUS UK narrative, but we need to make sure that the vision for tertiary education works for Wales, the student movements collective vision.

We are starting to talk about an education system that everyone can believe in, where education goes back to being a social good for wider society and the communities that we live in and shape.

Over the next year we will start to create this vision, a new educational philosophy that is democratic at its heart.

We will ensure all students are driving this process, we will be asking you to re imagine our education, and we are challenging you so we can challenge society, challenge the status quo and changing education to work for everyone.