Martin Whittaker reports
Ministers have said they expect students to spend a proportion of their education maintenance allowance on college transport - giving encouragement to local authorities to reduce subsidies.
Students in some parts of England face new charges for getting to college this September. The local authorities which have introduced them have been accused of exploiting students' receipt of the EMA - which provides up to pound;30 a week for teenagers from low-income households. College principals fear the increased costs could deter students from poorer families, particularly in rural areas, from staying on after 16.
The EMA was introduced nationally in 2004 to encourage more young people to stay in education and training. Around half of all 16-year-olds in England are eligible for the payments - starting at pound;10 a week.
Several local authorities, in cutting back on post-16 transport subsidies, have used the EMA to justify their actions.
Department for Education and Skills guidance to local authorities states that students are expected to contribute a "reasonable proportion" of their EMA towards transport costs, of up to a third of their allowance. A DfES spokesman said limiting students' contribution to a third of EMAs will mean the grants continue to act as an incentive to continue in education.
Nigel Robbins, principal of Cirencester College in Gloucestershire, heads a campaign calling for a co-ordinated national strategy for post-16 transport. His college pays more than pound;200,000 a year to run buses to the campus. "I think the authorities that are now cutting are taking advantage of EMAs," he said. "That's rather cynical."
North Yorkshire County Council, which previously offered free travel to college for 16 to 19-year-olds, has introduced a charge of pound;300 a year - around pound;8 a week - for new FE students from September. It argued that only a small minority of authorities still offered free transport post-16 and that EMAs protected the most financially vulnerable students. Scarborough Sixth Form College says the new charge will hit many of its students who travel in from outlying towns and villages.
Tom Potter, the principal, said: "EMAs were supposed to bring equity, but now we are back to inequity because some who live a distance away will use up their allowances for transport."
Lincolnshire County Council has also introduced a new pound;180-a-year charge for post-16 student bus passes. The council argues that its charge is below average compared to other local authorities, and that students from less well-off families can offset the cost with part of their EMA.
Colleges in Lincolnshire and those in neighbouring authorities taking students from the county have moved quickly to subsidise transport from their own coffers.
In Warwickshire, the cost for a student getting to college could increase from its current level of pound;175 to pound;275 a year. A spokesman for Warwickshire County Council said councillors are currently considering cuts in subsidised transport for 16 to 19-year-olds.
Warwickshire and Hinckley College has campuses in Warwickshire and Leicestershire. A spokesman said the college is still waiting to hear what transport charges will be imposed. "We will try to subsidise them (students) to some extent, but our money has been cut back. A lot of our subsidy comes through the learner support fund, but the learner support fund has shrunk."
In Tyne and Wear, Teen Travel cards, which gave sixth-formers half-price bus and Metro fares, were to be axed from July 31 among cutbacks in transport services. The scheme for 16-18 students has since been saved by an extra Pounds 1 million funding from transport operators, Tyne and Wear's FE colleges and the Learning and Skills Council - but students will only get a 25 per cent discount instead of the previous half-price deal. A spokesman for transport provider Nexus said: "It was hoped the Government would be able to match fund this contribution to allow the current scheme to continue, but so far this has not proved possible."
The LSC says it is concerned about the effect of local-authority cutbacks on student access to FE. Peter Hines, the LSC's learner support manager, said: "Our concern is around the question of whether they are acting within the legislation and whether they are meeting their duties."