Ministers in devolved governments are pouring money into keeping higher education fees lower than in England. But FE students are paying the price, either in reduced student support or slashed funding for courses.
The Northern Ireland Executive's announcement that it would freeze tuition fees at pound;3,500 a year has been followed by a review of the pound;30-a-week education maintenance allowance (EMA). "The department has been very clear about the process: it is depending on a reduction in EMA funding to meet the demands set out in the minister's statement to the house," said Pat Ramsey, Assembly member for the Social Democratic and Labour Party.
In Scotland, university funding will rise by almost 10 per cent - pound;90.5 million - over the next three years; at the same time, FE funding is to fall by pound;74 million. Scotland's Colleges, which represents the sector, says this represents a real-terms cut of over 13 per cent, following a 10 per cent cut this year. "It is inconceivable that colleges will be able to do that again," said John Spencer, who represents principals for Scotland's Colleges. He warned that the sector may have to turn students away.
While the National Union of Students (NUS) welcomed the lower fees, it warned that other parts of the education system must not suffer. "They must ensure that they are not robbing Peter to pay Paul," said Adrianne Peltz, president of NUS-USI, the joint body formed with the Union of Students in Ireland.
NUS president Liam Burns told a Labour conference fringe meeting this week that reinstating the EMA was an even higher priority than addressing soaring HE tuition fees, calling its abolition the Coalition's single most damaging action. But the move in Northern Ireland muddies these priorities.
"It would be a false choice to say that we can either have a higher education system free of `sticker price' fees or you can have young people financially supported in further education, but not both. It makes both financial and principled sense to find the cash for both," Mr Burns said. "But I stand by my comment that the worst decision that has been made in the last 12 months was cutting EMA. Higher fees become far less relevant if you can't make it through your A-levels in the first place."
Northern Ireland's employment and learning minister Stephen Farry sought to draw a contrast with the abolition of the EMA in England. "I wish to stress that, unlike England, we are not looking to abolish EMA. Rather, the review is targeted at unlocking the inefficiencies in the current system and ensuring that young people who require assistance continue to receive it."
But, in fact, this is an almost exact replay of the argument made by the Westminster Coalition: many students say they would have stayed in education without the EMA, and therefore reduced support, targeted more precisely at those in need, is a better option.
The Northern Ireland Executive does not claim that EMA inefficiency is on the same level as England, however. There, the Government said that research, fiercely disputed by defenders of the grant, showed that nine out of 10 recipients would have attended school or college without the payments.
In comparison, the Northern Ireland Assembly's committee for employment and learning heard that 64 per cent of EMA recipients told an evaluation of the scheme that they would have studied without the grant, although only a quarter of recipients replied. More than half said they either saved the money or spent it on leisure activities.
With pound;26 million spent on the grant, cutting the number of recipients could go a long way towards achieving the pound;20 million savings which the Department for Employment and Learning needs to find in order to pay for the freeze on HE fees.
But assembly members were concerned that the survey of EMA recipients was taken 18 months ago, before the full effects of the recession were felt. And the department acknowledges that the EMA has helped to increase participation in non-compulsory education: in Northern Ireland this has risen from 78 per cent to 87 per cent since it was introduced. In England, the rise is even more marked, from 67 per cent to 82 per cent. "Those are both significant increases," said Fergus Devitt, director of higher education at the Department for Employment and Learning.
At the Labour party conference, 16-year-old Rory Weal stole the show with an impassioned defence of the EMA. "As someone who would have benefited from the full EMA pay-out, I ask David Cameron what does he think I should do when I can't afford to get to school in the morning?" he asked.