Critics of the abolition of education maintenance allowance (EMA) warned that it could have a drastic impact on the numbers of teenage students enrolling in FE. Proponents argued it would have little effect. Now, a detailed survey of enrolments this term has found that they are both right - it all depends on who and where you are.
The survey, by the Association of Colleges (AoC), involved nearly half of England's 347 FE colleges. Those worst affected by falls in enrolments saw more than 10 per cent of their numbers of 16 to 19-year-olds disappear - a situation affecting more than one in 10 colleges.
But a divide has emerged: some colleges thrived during the recruitment period. At 5 per cent of FE institutions, numbers rose by 15 per cent or more, despite a reduction in funding per student and in student support.
The net loss was just 0.1 per cent, which might easily be explained by the beginnings of a demographic shift, with 40,000 fewer people in the 16-to-18 age group this year. But those figures mask a wide variation between colleges, which, if it persists, could lead to financial problems for some institutions and growing inequality in educational opportunities across England.
Jeremy Rogers, principal of Cadbury Sixth Form College, Birmingham, is one of almost two-thirds of college leaders who said that the loss of EMA was one of the main reasons for a slump in recruitment of more than 15 per cent.
He said they had about 250 fewer students starting at 16 who would have qualified for EMA, and a further 60 who dropped out in their second year because they were not eligible for the transitional grant.
"We have done research and we are absolutely convinced that it's the loss of EMA," Mr Rogers said. Its bursary funding only allows it to offer about #163;200 of transport subsidy for the two-thirds of students who claimed EMA, compared to cash payments of between #163;360 and #163;1,080 and last year.
His example also shows how problems can cut across regional and institutional divides. The West Midlands, a densely populated conurbation, had the healthiest enrolments in England in general, with 0.8 per cent growth. But because Cadbury college relies on students travelling more than most - Mr Rogers says they recruit from 120 schools and it is not unusual for students to commute for 90 minutes - it has suffered the same problems as rural areas. Students either attend a local school, often compromising on their subject choice, or give up.
"EMA was perfect because it meant they did not have to ask their parents for money and gave them slightly more independence from their family, which enabled them to choose to travel to sixth-form college to do their A-levels," he said.
As the AoC points out, college education, which generally requires more travel than attending a local school, offers better results for a lower Government investment.
At the other end of the spectrum from Cadbury college is Middlesbrough College, in one of the regions that suffered the biggest declines in student numbers, a fall of 1.4 per cent across the North East. Despite that, Middlesbrough's enrolment increased by about 5 per cent. Part of its success may be due to its efforts to publicise its alternative student support system to fill the gap left by EMA, though this suggests neighbouring institutions may have paid the price. Competition between colleges and schools is the only factor cited as frequently by principals in the survey as reduction of student support.
Generally, colleges said that competition was the biggest factor in urban areas, where wealthier colleges may best be able to press home their advantages. In rural areas, transport was the biggest factor.
At Bridgewater College in Somerset, one student dropped out of an agricultural class. When the college contacted him to ask why, he said he could not afford a #163;535-a-year bus pass and he had been cycling for over an hour each way to attend. But it had become too much for him. Luckily, the college was able to offer him a residential place.
"But, obviously, we can't do that for all students," said Fiona Macmillan, AoC president and principal of the college.
A smaller survey of recruitment by the level of course found that the number of students at level one, or pre-GCSE level, had fallen nearly twice as fast as A-level recruitment. Ms Macmillan said it showed that some of the most disadvantaged students, who had no alternatives to studying in college, were the hardest hit.
Education secretary Michael Gove said his aim for the bursaries that replaced EMA was for a more "targeted" system. The vulnerabilities highlighted by the AoC survey could offer opportunities to target funding more precisely, but it would have to come at the cost of some of the Department for Education's encouragement for competition and its laissez-faire approach.
Recruitment fell at 49 per cent of colleges, a fifth of which saw numbers fall by 10 per cent or more. At 42 per cent of colleges, numbers increased, with one in 20 increasing enrolment by 15 per cent.
The abolition of EMA and its replacement by smaller bursaries was the most frequently cited reason for the decline, followed by competition from other providers.
More than half of colleges are topping up bursaries with their own funds, some by as much as 50 per cent.
60 per cent of local authorities have cut transport funding for teenagers, prompting nearly the same proportion of colleges to increase their subsidies.
Science, maths and engineering, along with motor vehicle courses, construction, history, and health and social care, are among the courses to see increased recruitment.
The North East and East Midlands saw the biggest decline in enrolments, with a 1.4 per cent fall. The West Midlands saw the biggest gain, of 0.8 per cent.
Source: Association of Colleges survey.