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Sheffield College Students' Union President meets with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg

Monday 20 October 2014 Further Education

On Friday 17 October, Ben Walters met with Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Democrats, to discuss all things FE, and writes his reflections on their discussions.

We discussed travel, and how significant it is to FE students, specifically the financial impact upon students living in rural areas. NUS research ‘Pound in Your Pocket’ highlighted that there is a £7 a week difference between those living in rural and less populated areas than those living in metropolitan-urban areas, with 51 per cent of students living in rural areas paying less that £20 on weekly travel, as opposed to 71 per cent in urban areas.

The Deputy Prime Minister acknowledged this disparity and said his party would introduce a pass for all 16-21 year olds to receive two-thirds reduced fare, finding the money by means testing the winter fuels allowance.

The chances of 16 and 17 year olds receiving the vote before the 2015 General Election are “zilch”, according to Clegg, as currently there is no will from the Conservatives to introduce votes at 16, but he acknowledged that it was an inevitability after the General Election. I noted that this would also need to be introduced next to comprehensive citizenship education.

The main topic of conversation was in relation to FE funding, the Lib Dems plan to introduce a ‘cradle to college’ policy, expanding the ring fencing of education budget downwards into pre-school services and upwards to college and sixth form students.

We told him about how a large number of students at colleges start studying at Level 2, and therefore take three years to complete college. Just like the current system, then, there would be a funding gap for those going into their third year of college, or students over 18.

He seemed receptive to our suggestion to increase this to protect funding in colleges from 16 to 19, enabling students to complete their courses without worrying about course funding, but didn’t commit, saying he would contact us following consultation with his party. He also acknowledged that the current system of 24+ loans was not sustainable and that the Lib Dems were planning to look at this.

We told him that there was a grateful sentiment for expanding Free School Meals to those in a FE college and discussed how for many students who are eligible for free school meals but are on a placement struggle to afford food, as many of the placements are based in the city centre and the £2.41 they receive a day was not enough to get a healthy lunch.

There have been funding changes this year in FE in relation to Maths and English qualifications, specifically repeating GCSE. He was unaware of the severity of the problem with students who are reluctant to continue studying to gain a C in 40 weeks, something which schools failed to do in 11 years.

I brought up that I felt that, although making sure all students have Maths and English to a certain standard was something I broadly agreed with, there should be flexibility in how Colleges achieve this. He said he would follow this up with the Department for Education and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

We finally raised the issue of transition for students with a mental health illness when moving from FE to HE and the stress and complications the transfer of doctor can be in the current system and also how the relation between CAMS and adult mental health services could be improved.

Overall, the meeting was useful, more so I imagine for Nick Clegg, but it is comforting to know that he has a bit more of an understanding of the issues in FE than he did prior to our meeting.