Announcing the new #163;180 million bursary replacement for the education maintenance allowance (EMA) in March, education secretary Michael Gove claimed funding was sufficient to offer #163;800 a year to every student eligible for free school meals. Colleges beg to differ. Not only was that amount discretionary and less generous than the EMA, it is also unaffordable, according to many institutions. TES contacted several colleges, hardly any of which said they could afford to match the #163;800 mentioned.
Suffolk New College, for example, is offering #163;408 to all students whose family income is below the free school meals (FSM) threshold of #163;16,190. "This will be treated as an entitlement and the college anticipates a shortfall in funding which will be covered from other budgets," principal Dave Muller said.
Other institutions are finding life equally tough. At Hull College, students eligible for FSM are offered #163;600 worth of benefits in kind, aimed at addressing the obstacles low-income families face such as travel costs, meals and course equipment. The college believes this is the best use of its allocation, but Teresa Chalmers, director of student services, said it would not have been able to match Mr Gove's #163;800-a-year pledge.
Even one of the largest high-income colleges, The Manchester College, is only able to offer #163;20 a week in term-time - equivalent to #163;720 a year. Bournemouth and Poole College offers a maximum of #163;800 a year, but only on a discretionary basis. Others contacted by TES which said they would be unable to meet the #163;800 promise for all eligible students include Redbridge College in London and University College Birmingham.
Only a few colleges offer more generous terms than the average proposed by Mr Gove. Stoke-on-Trent College has raised the household income threshold for qualification to #163;20,000 and the maximum bursary to #163;1,000. Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group of large, influential FE colleges, said she was impressed with the "creative schemes" introduced by some colleges, but was concerned that there weren't enough resources for all, particularly for vulnerable learners. "Colleges have that discretion to decide how to use the money, and we are glad they have, but they face some really difficult choices, and it's inevitable that someone, somewhere, will lose out."
Already, children's charity Barnardo's has warned there are indications that students are being discouraged both by the reduction in the level of support from #163;560 million to #163;180 million, and by the replacement of a universal entitlement with an uncertain, discretionary system. Its chief executive, Anne Marie Carrie, said courses the charity runs for teenagers who are excluded or struggling in mainstream education have seen a fall in enrolments. One course for foundation learners in the North East saw applications fall from 70 last year to 17 this year, with students saying they cannot afford to attend.
"What we're hearing from colleges, schools and training providers is that the bursaries are between #163;200 and #163;400 per year. It's nowhere near the #163;800 that was talked about," Ms Carrie said. "We think the bursary scheme is a very poor substitute for the EMA; it's unfair and ineffective. Colleges, schools and training providers are ill-equipped to make decisions about which students should get the money."
This may underestimate the extent to which colleges have means-tested in the past for a variety of discretionary student-support schemes, however. Hull College is one that says assessing student needs is not an additional burden because it has always been part of the college's work.
But the Department for Education believes colleges rather than government know where support is required. "Individual colleges are clearly best placed to know which students are most in need of financial support to continue their studies," said a spokesman. "Colleges are already well versed in dealing with sensitive issues and making decisions about support for young people," he said.
Ms Carrie remains unconvinced, pointing out that the uncertainty can put another psychological barrier in the path of potential students. "Before, people knew that they had EMA when they started courses," she said.
"Now they won't know if they're going to get any financial support until they start. Bursaries were supposed to remove potential barriers to learning, but they've had the opposite effect, because some of the most vulnerable young people don't know what they're going to get."
Riots and the EMA
Cutting the EMA was a factor behind last month's riots, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber claimed this week.
Speaking at the TUC congress in London, he said the widespread looting in several cities had "underlined the folly of Coalition policy", and described its cuts agenda as "austerity on speed".
"'Of course I accept the riots were not caused by the cuts, but as any fair-minded person must see, the cuts will undoubtedly make the underlying problems much worse," he added.
EMA bites the dust
In March, education secretary Michael Gove announced that he would be replacing the #163;560 million-per-year education maintenance allowance (EMA) with a more targeted bursary scheme worth #163;180 million.
The new scheme consists of a guaranteed payment of #163;1,200 to 12,000 vulnerable young people, including children in care and teenagers living independently from their parents. The rest, Mr Gove said, would be distributed to assist other young people and tackle potential barriers to participation, such as transport or equipment costs.
It is distributed at the discretion of individual colleges.