The bursary blues

15th June 2012 at 01:00

When a guide to "good practice" makes depressing reading, it's a sure sign that something is amiss. And it's hard to look through the Department for Education's examples of 16-19 bursaries good practice without getting a sinking feeling.

A system that was intended to replace the education maintenance allowance (EMA), but with reduced funding since it was dubiously claimed that only one in 10 recipients really needed it, now seems to be at risk of fading out of sight altogether.

One case in point is the recommendation that the bursary should no longer be a cash payment to be spent by the student as they see fit. Instead, schools and colleges should pay them "in kind" with the things their managers believe are necessary. "This helps ensure that the bursary awarded genuinely is sufficient to meet students' needs," the guide says.

If there were prizes for disingenuousness, that sentence would be on the shortlist. The amount of money is the same regardless of how it's paid. The real focus is whether the "needs" are "genuine": it's the same old slur that students are spending the money on takeaways and iPhone apps.

Many colleges are using in-kind payments to gain economies of scale for things such as transport. But they cannot predict what individual students need. When the EMA payments system broke down in 2008, it became clear that many students used the money to supplement household income - and with benefits being squeezed those numbers can only have risen.

It's also apparent that students are facing increasingly complex hurdles to claim the money, such as having to detail family savings as well as income. In some places, students are even having to stay on target for their expected grades in order to continue receiving financial support.

Just over a year ago, I wrote that the choice of "bursary" - with its Dickensian ring - marked a fundamental shift from an entitlement to something more like charity. And here we have it: increasingly, students' money will be managed for them like they are wards of the Court of Chancery.

There is a precedent for this in the additional learning support grant for those with disabilities or other difficulties. As a 2009 National Union of Students report detailed, the lack of individual control over the grant, which is administered by colleges for the general good, resulted in tens of thousands of disabled students being left without any support at all. No one could complain because no one knew what they were entitled to.

This collective strategy seems at odds with the government's approach to everything else in education. How sad it would be if ministers believed in devolving power to the individual, except if they are poor.

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