Bristol vegan student forces college into u-turn on making her do farming module

Fiji Willetts had been a vegan for four years when she refused to work on a farm as part of her course. Credit: Fiji Willetts

A college student has forced her college to back down after she took a course in animal management and objected to a part that involved working on a farm.

18-year-old Fiji Willetts was studying the course at South Gloucestershire and Stroud College (SGS) that was described as 'great for people who love animals'.

But it included working on a farm producing meat, dairy, fibre or eggs and possibly visiting a slaughterhouse.

Fiji, who had been vegan for four years, signed up to the diploma as a way to allow her to study for a degree in wildlife management, zoology or conservation at a university in the future.

Fiji had been told if she did not complete the module in question she would fail. Credit: BPM Media

But last October, she complained to SGS College that after she enrolled, she was told she’d have to take and pass the module on Farm Husbandry, which involved raising animals for meat or dairy products.

The 18-year-old from Downend in Bristol, requested to do an alternative module but was told this was not possible and that if she did not complete the farming unit, she would fail.

She then made a formal complaint to the college but remained unhappy with their response. Fiji then took up the issue with the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), with the help of lawyers from the Vegan Society.

But the ESFA, the Government body which oversees colleges, backed SGS College on March 1 and did not uphold her complaint. This led the determined teenager and the Vegan Society to formally complain to Pearsons, the exam board which awards the diplomas.

Fiji and the Vegan Society say a day after Pearsons got involved, SGS College ‘conducted a huge U-turn’ and offered her the option to take an alternative module instead.

“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,” Fiji added.

“I just hope I can now be an example to other vegans so they don’t have to go through the ordeal I went through”.

Fiji took her complaint through several educational authorities before it was overturned. Credit: BPM Media

The legal rights advocate for the Vegan Society, Jeanette Rowley, said the beliefs of Vegans are protected by law in the UK.

“This was not only a really big win for Fiji but for the vegan movement in general,” 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.

“They must do everything they can to remove any observed disadvantages faced by vegans.

“I’m delighted Fiji was able to stay at her college and is able to continue working towards her diploma,” she added.

Fiji hopes her story will prevent other vegans from suffering similar experiences. Credit: BPM Media

SGS College said they had tried to help Fiji overcome the issue, but after a while she stopped engaging with them.

Fiji's complaint never reached court and her complaint to the ESFA was not upheld as the Government ruled in the college's favour, saying they were not discriminating against her as a vegan.

A spokesperson for the college said they had made "every effort" to explain to Fiji that the farming module 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... 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,” he added.

The spokesperson added that they 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 Unit 19 if she so wished."

A statement from South Gloucestershire and Stroud College claimed Fiji has ‘never been told that she must study the unit’ - something the teenager disputes - but just that she was ‘encouraged to do so because of its usefulness to the local economy’.

Read more: