Breaking the UK record for FE student union votes: Bradford College union staff explain why it matters

Bradford College Students Union has just broken a national record. In the March elections for President, Vice President and other roles, 1,735 students voted. That’s roughly 7.5% of our 23,000 students, and puts us ahead of the standing record, set by Cornwall College in 2010, where 1,675 of a student population of 40,000 turned out to vote (just over 4%).

This is a record in Further Education (FE). In universities, it’s a different story altogether. The top scoring universities tend to be Leeds, Sheffield and Nottingham, with Leeds holding the record at 11,500 votes from a student body of 32,000 (36% – a turn out higher than in local elections).

So why is it so different in FE, and why is our record-breaking turnout so important?

Students' Union Manager Neil MacKenzie with Pete MacMillan, Student Activities Co-ordinator.

Students’ Union Manager Neil MacKenzie (left) with Pete MacMillan, Student Activities Co-ordinator.

“The demographics of our student population are a significant factor,” says Neil MacKenzie,  Manager of the College Students’ Union. “It’s known that hard-to-reach groups are less likely to take part in a Students Union and less likely to take part in elections. Well, at Bradford our student body is largely made up of such groups: people who live at home, carers, mature students, students on placement, distance learners. These are all people who have limited time on campus and limited time to get involved.”

Pete MacMillan is Student Activities Co-ordinator with the Union, and he plays a key role in organising the annual elections. “There isn’t a culture of having a Students Union in FE colleges,” he explains. “You leave home to go to university and you expect a dynamic union to organise lots of things. Here, many people come to classes and then go home, they don’t look to the Union for a social life.”

Our Students Union is unique. There are only a small number of unions in FE, and ours stands out because it is the only independent one. It’s staff are independent of the College, and the elected officers therefore have an added responsibility in leading the Union and its workforce.

Elections always take place nationwide in the Spring term. This time round there were some 20 candidates standing for 13 positions at Bradford College: progress from last year, and an opportunity for students to make a choice. “We are pleased with the mix of candidates as well,” says Pete. “There was better representation of black and minority ethnic groups, and more mature students standing. One of the candidates for Vice President was a woman  – however, we’d still like to see more women putting themselves forward for office.”

“Female representation can be an issue in higher education as well,” Neil adds. Before coming to Bradford College 18 months ago, he was Democracy and Representation Manager at the University of Sheffield Students’ Union. “I worked with the Women’s Officer there to run an empowerment and leadership programme for women, which has resulted in more women candidates – though they’d still like to see more being elected. We are going to look at the steps we can take here to encourage women to take part, and we hope to have more HE candidates next year as well.”

Neil and Pete explain that, because many of our HE courses are vocational, the students are focussed on qualifying and getting on with their careers. Taking a year out to serve on the Union is not an option they consider. Neil and Pete are hoping to change this.

The roles up for election included two full-time, paid positions – President and Vice President – and a number of part-time, voluntary roles. The paid roles are the most responsible and the most popular. Nominations have to be in two weeks before the election, and anyone who is 16 or older and a registered student at the College can stand for election and vote. All the candidates are given a free campaign pack with some T shirts, posters and other materials, and the Union publishes a booklet profiling all the contenders.

Formal campaigning gets underway one week ahead of the vote. This year, social media brought a massive boost to the election.

“In former years we’d have a hustings where each candidate would put their case, and about 40 students would turn up,” says Pete. “This year we made a short film of each candidate and put it on our Facebook page and visits went up from 400 to 5,500.” The Union will be looking at more ways of building online democracy over the coming year.

The high turnout this year is exciting and positive for the Union and the College. “Every vote makes our Union more legitimate,” says Neil. “It makes us a stronger voice when we approach the Directorate and Corporation. It makes the Union more representative of and credible to the students.”

But it matters in other ways as well. “Not everyone at this College comes from homes where there is a culture of voting,” says Neil. “We hope that involvement in democracy inside the College will encourage people to be active citizens when they leave.”

The Union has links with the Bradford Council’s Electoral Services Team  and works with them to promote voter registration among students. Last year, the Education Select Committee came to the College to run a consultation on advice and guidance. Neil has been invited to sit on a National Union of Students Working Group looking at getting FE students registered in advance of the 2015 general election. And current President Piers Telemarque (about to serve his second and final term in office) convened an event which brought MPs from different parties into the College.

And now? Neil and Pete are preparing the successful candidates for their new roles, and they are planning for the next election. They are looking at ways of keeping the unsuccessful candidates on board and setting goals: higher turnout, more women, more mature and HE students standing for office. “And sunny weather would help!”

ballot boxThere’s one other positive feature as well that they won’t want to lose. “We didn’t have a single complaint about conduct throughout the whole campaign,” says Pete. Feelings can run high, so this is another achievement.

Anyone wanting to follow the fortunes of our Union, its elected officers and staff, is encouraged to ‘like’ the facebook page.
You can also follow the Union on Twitter: @bradfordcollsu

The Union says thank you to the security staff and Creative Media and Innovation for their help during the election.

About the interviewees
Pete MacMillan read politics at Lancaster University, was Vice President of the Students Union there, and came to Bradford College about 18 months ago, soon after graduating.
Neil MacKenzie read Politics and Parliamentary Studies at the University of Leeds, during which time he did placements with the New Democratic Party in Canda, and at Westminster. He was elected Communications and International Affairs Officer with Leeds Students Union. He spent one year as political assistant to the Swindon Council Labour Group, and then went to work at Sheffield University before joining Bradford College.

text and photographs by ruth Wilson, Bradford college.

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