FE Focus Editorial - For the poor, the EMA cut is the deepest

19th November 2010 at 00:00

One of the many benefits of the Association of Colleges' annual conference, aside from some mind-boggling sights on the after-hours dancefloor, is that possibly nowhere else gives you such a concentrated sense of opinion among college leaders.

What was clear from this year's event was the depth of concern over the withdrawal of the education maintenance allowance (EMA). Hardly a session went by without someone raising it.

No political opinion is without self-interest, and principals surely have an eye on what might happen to their institutions' budgets if 16-19 enrolment falls. But then they cater for the poorest students, who, without some financial support, are the most likely never to darken the doors of an educational institution after the age of 16, or to drop out for lack of funds.

But these principals are also the people who raided their own budgets to give cash to students two years ago, when a bureaucratic fiasco meant EMA payments were delayed. They know how important it is to students who rely on the money for books, course fees or travel.

The situation is compounded by the Coalition's general austerity regime. It is hitting local authorities particularly hard, where the subsidy for transport to education is one of the few discretionary items of spending and therefore headed for cuts.

The defence of this decision by ministers is deeply disappointing. We are told that the EMA was not sufficiently targeted, and that 90 per cent of claimants did not need it.

Never mind that ministers keep citing the wrong research. In reality, a strictly means-tested benefit like the EMA is the definition of targeted support. On the most optimistic of assumptions, a family receiving the full EMA payment is in the poorest third of households in the UK. Those with more than one child will be even worse off.

Everyone who receives the EMA is relatively poor. If this is untargeted, what could we say of the decision by the Government to continue to pay child benefit to families with a joint income of pound;75,000?

But the new "targeted" support is just a euphemism for cuts. Any benefit could be said to be targeted if it is only available to a tiny minority. In this world, the most targeted support for impoverished learners would be to find the single poorest student in the country and put a fiver in his top pocket. Savings to Treasury: pound;499,999,995.

It would be better to be told honestly that we cannot afford it. But this is not true either. The EMA's cost of pound;500 million a year is just 0.6 per cent of the planned deficit reduction over four years: it is a rounding error. What were the politics behind this? That education secretary Michael Gove should find a sacrificial lamb to prove that he too was making cuts?

The result is the final triumph of the thinking that led to the raising of the participation age; an admission of defeat disguised as a policy. It says that you cannot create the conditions where all young people will want to stay in education or have the money to afford it. This is not a situation that a wealthy, advanced country like the UK should ever have to face.

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