FEfocus Editorial - Bursaries aren't fair, whatever you call them

1st April 2011 at 01:00

Given that Michael Gove's very first act as education secretary was to change the name of the department, thereby exorcising the ghost of his opposite number Ed Balls, it is fair to assume that names matter.

So it is with the announcement of the replacement for the education maintenance allowance (EMA, page 1). While Labour went for a three-letter acronym that might have been devised by the corporate social responsibility department of a business school, Mr Gove plumped for the slightly fusty prep school air of "bursary".

This is not just a matter of taste. EMA was an entitlement for anyone who met the criteria, whereas bursaries have always tended to be voluntary acts of charity from the rich to the poor. The Good Schools Guide's description of a bursary - "usually for helping out the impoverished but deserving and those fallen on hard times" - has a slightly Dickensian ring to it.

There is no particular reason why the EMA replacement had to be discretionary rather than an entitlement, albeit reduced. Mr Gove said the Association of Colleges wanted it this way. That was indeed their preference when they thought that there was only about pound;75 million - less than a tenner a week for the 200,000 or so students who are poor enough to qualify for free school meals.

But with more than double that, a universal grant for those with the lowest family incomes seems within reach. If Mr Gove really wanted to give colleges what they wanted, he only had to retain EMA.

On the other hand, it does reflect an ideological shift that is appealing to Conservatives. For one thing, it limits Government exposure: the number of bursary claimants may go up, but the cost to the Government need not. And more broadly, it fits in with principles of self-reliance: students cannot simply depend on receiving cash.

Instead, the new bursary has the problems of scarcity. The system is likely to favour those who are quick to ask for help. And, according to the economists at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, whose favourable verdict on EMAs gave momentum to the cause, there will be little transparency for students who may face arbitrary refusals when the cash runs out.

They also point out that providers may have an incentive to use the money to reward high achieving, low income students who are likely to have stayed on in any case, thus duplicating the "dead weight" cost that was put forward as the reason for reform.

What the system gains in flexibility, it loses in accountability. While the DfE says it will closely monitor the first year of bursaries, it is not clear how they could judge if the money goes to the right student. It is too late to include the payments on next year's learner records, which are already fixed. So it seems more likely that providers will only have to account for the money in a much more general sense.

That leaves plenty of gaps for students to suffer injustices, and little recourse for them beyond adding another complaint to the pile. Of course, without a national entitlement, it is likely that the public at large will never hear about the individuals who miss out.

And maybe that is the point.

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