College course 'against my beliefs' – vegan student
A VEGAN college student from Downend says she was told she would fail her course if she did not complete a section on animal farming.
Fiji Willetts is studying a BTEC National Extended Diploma in Animal Management at South Gloucestershire and Stroud College, which the college recommends on its website for people looking for careers working at "kennels, catteries, pet stores, wildlife parks, dog grooming salons and zoological institutions".
But Fiji said that, after enrolling, she discovered she was expected to pass a unit on farm husbandry, raising livestock for meat, milk, eggs and other animal products, which are not consumed by vegans.
Fiji, who has been vegan for four years and has previously organised fundraising dog shows for animal charities, says she started suffering with anxiety and raised her concerns with her tutor, but was told she would not be able to study an alternative unit, which she says left her with the choice of failing, enrolling on a different course or leaving the college.
She said students were expected to attend working farms as part of the husbandry unit, and a visit to a slaughterhouse was also discussed.
Fiji said: “I couldn’t simply break my way of living purely to pass a course.
"I am vegan because I love animals and so to go against my beliefs and attend a farm, where I would be supporting a farmer, would be wrong."
The 18-year-old former Winterbourne Academy pupil contacted the Vegan Society, who helped her submit a formal complaint to the college, to the Education and Skills Funding Agency and then examination awarding body Pearson, on the grounds that veganism is protected under human rights and equality law, and education providers are under a legal duty to offer inclusive courses.
Five months after her initial complaint, Fiji started an alternative module and will be able to finish the course.
Vegan Society rights advocate Jeanette Rowley said the college had initially said it was “unable to remove" the module from the curriculum or substitute it with another one.
She said: "Vegans in the UK have the protection of human rights and equality law and it is vital that schools and colleges understand that they are under a statutory duty to examine how their educational policies and practices might have a negative impact on vegan students."
SGS College insists it did offer Fiji the chance to study an alternative module, in advanced animal nutrition or business management in the animal sector, and that she was never told she had to either study the husbandry unit, choose another course or drop out.
Principal Sara-Jane Watkins said: "The college has made every effort to explain to Fiji that the unit was chosen with the intention of delivering a holistic and well-rounded programme that both meets local need while also enabling learners to progress onto the next stages of their education.
"On at least three separate occasions, the college has also acted to reassure Fiji, and her parents, that the unit had been ethically planned and, in addition to our commitment that it would be delivered to the highest possible standards and with the highest regard for animal welfare, that it would not be delivered in a way that either disregards Fiji's beliefs or places her at any disadvantage.
"The College also confirmed with Fiji that she would not be expected to undertake any activity with which she was uncomfortable and that she could opt out of all or some of (the unit) if she so wished."
Ms Watkins said Fiji "would never have failed" unless she opted out of the husbandry unit and did not study an alternative.
Fiji insists that she was only offered an alternative unit in late March, after Pearson became involved.
The college says the Equality and Human Rights Commission has confirmed that equality obligations "do not apply to anything done in connection with the content of the curriculum", adding: "This means that you are not restricted in the range of issues, ideas, and materials you use in your syllabus and will have the academic freedom to expose students to a range of thoughts and ideas, however controversial.
"Even if the content of the curriculum causes offence to students with certain protected characteristics, this will not make it unlawful unless it is delivered in a way which results in harassment or subjects students to discrimination or other detriment.”