Midway through the general election campaign, Accrington and Rossendale College received a slightly unusual request from the Conservative Party.
Would it be possible, the college was asked, for Michael Howard's helicopter to land on its football pitch so that he could transfer to his campaign battle bus before meeting voters in the key Labour marginal?
Although the college principal Nancy Cookson realised the Tory leader would only be on the college's premises for a few minutes, she was determined not to miss the opportunity to lobby him over the funding gap between colleges and schools. As he left his helicopter, she challenged Howard over the issue, but he was not in the mood to make commitments. Replying that he already knew school sixth- formers receive more money than teenagers in further education, Howard left without speaking to students or even visiting the college's highly-praised construction department. According to Cookson, students at the Lancashire college are as excited about the election as the population as a whole. 'There is a large amount of apathy,' she says.
But across the country, some staff and students have had the opportunity to play a more constructive role in the election, with high-profile politicians agreeing to question-and-answer sessions alongside the inevitable photo opportunity. At Hartpury College in Gloucestershire, one week before his visit to Accrington, Michael Howard extended his stay from one hour to two so that he could discuss the funding issue over lunch with college principal Malcolm Wharton.
Tory strategists requested the visit, in another Labour marginal, after education minister Kim Howells visited the college in early April to open its new pounds 5.5m sports academy.
While Howard took part in a staged line-out with the college's rugby team, students did not have the opportunity to ask questions. When Menzies Campbell visited City of Bristol College, the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesman spent 45 minutes answering questions on issues such as further education funding, university tuition fees and Iraq. About three quarters of those taking part, which included politics and media studies students, were of voting age. Nella Stokes, the college's head of learner services, says some students were as interested in talking …