James McEnaney speaks to Ellie Gomersall, president of the National Union of Students Scotland, about some of the challenges and crises facing students in the further and higher education sectors.

Let’s get right to it: what is the situation for students in Scotland right now?

So at the moment it's pretty grim, I think, particularly in FE, the college sector. It has been cut year after year after year. It has been chronically underfunded for an extended period of time.

This year we were bracing ourselves to have to slam the government for yet another real terms cut to college budgets - instead we're having to slam them for cash terms cuts in the tens of millions of pounds and I think what we've seen over the past decade or so is the de-prioritisation of colleges and further education.

If that is true, and college education has been effectively deprioritised, how does that manifest for students and staff?

We're seeing significant course cuts and significant cuts to student services. I'll tell you the group of students who come to me the most, and by quite a significant margin, saying how terrified they are by the cuts are disabled students. They are consistently the group who come to me and say that they're really worried that these cuts are going to have an impact on disability services, and in some cases that has already happened. Some of those who have been a student before in the past as well are saying that the lack of support that they're getting now, compared to previous periods of study, is noticeable.

The thing with colleges in particular as well is that they're community based organisations and the impact that they have on the local community is huge, but that means that cuts to courses that we're seeing also restrict the options that those potential students have because maybe their situation means they're not able to move out of home, or maybe they've got kids and they're not able to uproot their whole family to take on a course. So then maybe that's an opportunity that has completely disappeared for them, and I think that's absolutely heart-breaking.

Why do you think that colleges seem to have been the main target for cuts?

Colleges are the place where working class people go to get education.

There is a real classism still deeply rooted in our education system. There's so much focus on needing to get more working class kids to go to university. Don't get me wrong, I totally agree that working-class people who want to go to university should have that option and there should be no barriers to them because of their class, but there's this idea that university is the only sort of tertiary education that matters.

But colleges are so, so critical, not just in terms of community based education, not just in terms of a place that working class students often face significantly fewer barriers, not just in terms of lifting people out of poverty - they are critical, absolutely critical, to the functioning of Scotland as a country.

I think that there's a degree of complacency in terms of people think that colleges are just sort of trundling along and they're really not - they're absolutely collapsing. The Auditor General's report into college finances a few months ago with was absolutely terrifying, and then the Scottish government followed that up with cash terms cuts to college resource budgets.

The Herald: Ellie Gomersall, president of the National Union of Students ScotlandEllie Gomersall, president of the National Union of Students Scotland (Image: Newsquest)

Despite the best efforts of some of those in charge, it has been noticeable that during recent disputes, despite being the ones most affected by strikes and marking boycotts, students seem to have generally supported the staff taking action. Is that accurate?

Absolutely accurate. I think there have certainly been some instances where I it's almost been like the management of some colleges have held students to ransom by saying 'if these strikes continue you will not pass, you will not have your qualifications', and the students have said 'well sort it out then!'

I think this is the thing - it's teaching staff, lecturer, but also support staff and those that students encounter during their time at college who are the ones who are actually delivering their education. Students can see that. Students can recognise that. It's nice and easy for us to say at rallies and things because it's got a nice ring to it, but it's fundamentally true: staff working conditions are students' learning conditions.

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We say it because it is true and students recognise that - they can see that their lecturers are experiencing in some cases quite extreme poverty, the same extreme poverty that students are also experiencing, and they can see that the cuts are affecting their lecturers working conditions, but also their own educational experience. They're not stupid. They can make that connection.

One of the most obvious impacts of the cuts to colleges is that over the last ten or eleven years, I think in nine of those, EIS workers have been left with no choice other than to take strike action. It has becomes it's a recurring thing each year where we can pretty much put next year's strike dates in the calendar already because we know that they're going to happen. And I always say the disruption that's caused by strikes is nothing compared to the disruption caused by that chronic underfunding of courses and of the whole system.

The Scottish Government seems to want to avoid getting too heavily involved in the ongoing disputes affected colleges. Do you think they’re doing enough?

It's no surprise that EIS-FELA's tagline at the moment, they language that they're using, is 'fighting for the future of Further Education', because that that's what they are fighting about. It's about the chronic underfunding of the system which is having a hugely detrimental impact on them as workers, but also on the students whose education is a risk here. It's about the very nature of the sector because the language that has been used is a managed decline of further education and I would absolutely agree with that assessment.

I don’t think the government sees education as a priority. That’s true of the current government and it was true of the previous government whose First Minister said ‘judge me on my record’. I don’t think education was ever a priority and if it was then they’ve had a funny way of showing it.

Finally, I want to put you on the spot here. If you had three wishes to improve education for Scottish students, what would they be?

Wish number one would be to fund our education. Proper funding on the learning and teaching side. For colleges that means funding them properly as public bodies. For universities, if we’re saying we’ve got free tuition for Scottish students then that money has to cover the cost of that student’s education, because right now it doesn’t. That’s why foreign students have to essentially be treated as cash cows, which exploits everyone, and is fundamentally unacceptable, so those places need to be funded properly.

I think wish number two would be as a society, as a culture, we start to respect Further Education for the fantastic, transformative thing that it is. I want it to become a vote winner. I want people to get riled up about the state of our colleges because what is happening right now is unacceptable.

The Herald: Ellie Gomersall, president of the National Union of Students Scotland. Photo Gordon Terris.Ellie Gomersall, president of the National Union of Students Scotland. Photo Gordon Terris. (Image: Newsquest)

Number three, we need to have a really frank conversation around student finance. Particularly around the maintenance side of things. Student poverty has been a huge issue for a very long time but right now it absolutely terrifies me. We did two surveys and consistently found that 12% of students have experienced homelessness at some point during their studies, and if you’re an international student that increases to 21%. That is horrific. The government, to be fair, I think has at least started to recognise these challenges. One of the few good things that came out of the budget last month was a £2400 increase in student support payment for undergrads and postgraduate students. It’s a loan, rather than a grant, but it will make a huge difference.