EMA fury gains pace amid fears of student drop-out
It is not often that unions, students and managers all get together on the same side, but the Government's decision to scrap the cherished education maintenance allowance (EMA) has managed exactly that.
The speed of the process has shocked many, from a decision in late October to the axe at the beginning of next month as the Government aims to save around pound;500 million.
"The entire sector is in outrage over this, from principals to managers and students," says Shane Chowen, NUS vice-president for further education. The union is organising a day of protest on December 13 and has already targeted MPs and education secretary Michael Gove through its Save EMA campaign.
While the EMA will begin drying up in January, those already awarded funds from September this academic year will continue to receive the pound;30-a-week payments until the summer. After that, the only money available to students from poorer homes will be the Learner Support Fund - a pound;75 million annual pot distributed directly by colleges.
Anger at the cuts has seen students and lecturers spill out on to the streets in protest during recent weeks. Many are particularly opposed to ending funding when thousands of students will be only halfway through two-year courses.
"Students have entered into a contract on EMAs and now they're being told they are not getting what they thought they were," says Mr Chowen. "They're very angry and let down."
Towards the end of November, Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC), wrote to Mr Gove to argue that the Learner Support Fund is nowhere near adequate and there is a real danger of students ditching their courses next summer because they will no longer be able to afford the cost of transport, books or learning equipment.
"It would be tragic," Mr Doel wrote, "if they were forced to suspend their studies as a result of the decision to end their EMA.
"I hope you can at least reconsider the pace at which the EMA is removed so that these young people can complete their studies under the same terms at which they started."
This worry - that many will simply abandon their courses - is echoed by college principals.
Lowell Williams is principal of Dudley College in the West Midlands, where 78 per cent of the 2,500 students receive the EMA.
Mr Williams says one overlooked benefit of the EMA is its ability to get parents interested in their children's education when they would otherwise see it as a financial drain.
He is quick to point out that parents have not been acting like latterday Fagins, sending their children out to college in order to pick up the allowance - which is paid out on attendance records - and then spending the money on booze and fags.
What he means is that, where FE would not have been considered an option, the EMA means it now it is. "EMAs got some parents interested in education that weren't before because they offer practical support," he says. "It meant that some young people could contribute to the household budget and go on to further education as well."
Mr Williams thinks that students like those in his catchment area will now be put off and instead go and look for a job. "We will lose some to part- time, low-paid jobs," he warns. "The decision to axe it will have a disastrous effect. Areas with high levels of deprivation will see a fall in student numbers because this puts a hurdle up to the less well off. The really big effect of all this will come in September 2011."
The NUS is predicting that students due to start courses next month will be a foretaste of what will happen nine months later. "It's just the start," says Mr Chowen, who predicts the protests and marches of the last few weeks will continue well after the initial outburst of anger has subsided.
Anger is the predominant theme for Ken Warman, principal of Brooke House Sixth Form College (BSix) in Hackney, east London. "The students are discussing it all the time. I've never seen them so angry," he says.
Just over 70 per cent of the 1,500 students at BSix receive the EMA. Mr Warman adds: "I don't think the Government really anticipated the level of anger. My main concern is that you'll get a group of people who won't have a job and can't afford to go to college."
The 157 Group of 28 of the biggest colleges has carried out its own research into the decision to scrap the EMA. It says the allowance increases attendance records and retention and that during the 10 years since it was introduced it has increased participation by 7 per cent among females and 5 per cent among males.
As part of a campaign to show the Government the practical consequences of its decision, New College Nottingham supplied the 157 Group with a series of answers about what EMA cuts mean to their students. Of 24 responses, the most positive was this: "Struggle, need to go to Mum and Dad a lot." Most answers were a variation of: "Can't afford to come to college."
This snap survey suggests that students are most worried about how they will be able to travel to college. A 157 Group spokeswoman says: "Local authorities are also cutting back on transport subsidies and this is a double-whammy for those many learners who solely spend EMA on travel alone."
Under the new system, it will be up to principals like Mr Warman and Mr Williams to decide who gets what from the Learner Support Fund. "The Government has a right to make legislation but it's important to point out the consequences," says AoC assistant chief executive Julian Gravatt, who is concerned about the growing levels of bureaucracy and paperwork. "EMAs didn't require a student to queue up and show their financial circumstances to a college."
To date, EMA claims have been contracted out to the private sector, but they will now be the college's responsiblity. "We didn't do any of those eligibility checks," says Mr Williams. "They were done by people more skilled and better resourced."
The biggest protest from colleges and the organisations which represent them is that the Government has made a blunder - one it has rushed into to ensure it makes, in the words of Mr Gravatt, "a quick saving".
A Department for Education spokesman says: "Ensuring the most disadvantaged pupils get the support they need to stay in education has to be our priority. That is why we will use a more targeted scheme that will enable schools and colleges to use their local knowledge to tailor support to suit the young people in their area and respond to their actual circumstances."
But in his letter to Mr Gove, Mr Doel asked the education secretary to hold back from implementing his decision. "I believe that independent research is vital so that arguments are based on fact rather than fiction," he wrote.
Given the strength of feeling, it is clear what many in FE believe that research would show.
END OF THE ROAD
RURAL STUDENTS' TRAVEL BURDEN
Concerns have been raised that students living in rural areas, who rely on the EMA to help meet their transport costs, will be hit particularly hard by the abolition of the allowance.
Richard Atkins is principal of Exeter College, where more than half of its 4,300 students aged 16-18 travel in from outside the city.
"I'm very, very worried about the people who travel here," he says. "It will be a big burden on them and their families.
"There will be a pressure to look for something else because they will be worried about money. It could end up pushing them into unskilled jobs."
He has students who make 50-mile one-way journeys to reach college, and he is especially worried about those who will be halfway through courses when the EMA is pulled next summer.
"They have built in the EMA as part of their travel costs. The concern is that they won't come back in September," he says.