College mergers could squeeze out students, warns NUS
Thousands of students could be squeezed out of further education if plans for college closures and mergers go ahead, warns the National Union of Students.
A series of area reviews across England this year will decide how the sector will be restructured.
The government says it wants "fewer, often larger, more resilient and and efficient providers".
But the NUS says merged colleges will mean more travel and expense for students, forcing many out.
The union's FE Unplugged campaign calls on all further education students to make their opinions known to the review teams.
The union says it "is clear the mergers are the inevitable result of cut after cut to the FE sector, putting colleges financially on their knees".
The implications for students are reduced choice of colleges and courses, staff job losses, bigger classes and longer, more expensive journeys, it adds.
In particular, merged colleges are likely to rationalise the subjects they offer. So some students could have to travel up to 20 miles to another town to study their chosen subjects, it warns.
Shakira Martin, NUS vice-president for higher education, said many students might abandon their education.
Those with young children or other caring responsibilities are likely to find the extra travel time and childcare cost impossible, said Ms Martin.
While in major cities such as London, some young men would be reluctant to travel to another borough or postcode for fear of gang violence, she added.
"What I am frustrated about is that this is really about the cuts being made to the sector.
"The government's rhetoric is all about making bigger, stronger colleges but the everyday student doesn't know what this means.
"I want learners to be at the heart of the process," she said.
Too few people know about the reviews, she added, so the campaign aims to raise awareness.
The union plans to hold round-table discussions with students from every FE college to decide the main messages they want to give the review teams.
They will consider what makes a high quality education and what students need in order to access it.
"Students should be encouraged to say what they think and need and bring awareness of the reviews to local communities.
"Colleges are the hubs of local communities," said Ms Martin.
Association of Colleges chief executive Martin Doel encouraged students to get involved in the NUS campaign to ensure government "recognises the important role of further education and why colleges must remain accessible to everyone.
"The country needs strong, resilient and locally responsive colleges to provide high quality technical and professional education.
"Further education and sixth form colleges will be essential if the recovery is to be sustained through the development of a highly skilled workforce," said Mr Doel.
The government said it welcomed the input of students into the reviews, saying the plan was "not about cuts but making sure that students have access to high quality education and training.
"With local partners we are ensuring a high quality and financially sustainable college base across England which meets the economic and educational needs of learners and employers," said a Department for Business Innovation and Skills spokesman.