FEfocus Editorial - Fee hysteria not needed to fight EMA axe

17th December 2010 at 00:00

If you want guaranteed publicity, you need to assault a royal. Or at least get a rock star's relative to do something stupid. That is the perverse lesson from the protests over the last fortnight, in which the tuition fees demos bagged front pages, and hours of television news discussion after protestors got close to Prince Charles and the adopted son of a Pink Floyd guitarist swung from the Cenotaph.

In comparison, there was only a smattering of coverage for Monday's demonstration against the axing of education maintenance allowances (EMAs). Fine, it was smaller and much more scattered, but it was a far more mature event. Tens of thousands of students were joined by lecturers, unions and college leaders, and they made the case for the payments (page 35). While the HE sector has seen antagonism between undergrads and vice- chancellors, at the FE protests the principals and students were united and provided clear examples of why the EMAs should stay, setting out cases of young people who could not have continued in education without them.

Despite this, the Government carried on insisting the allowances must go on the grounds that they were not sufficiently "targeted". Two other events this week made that claim sound especially hollow. The first was on Monday, the day of the protest. By chance that was also when the Treasury sent pound;250 to everyone over 60. As Channel 4 News's economics editor Faisal Islam noted, recipients of the winter fuel allowance included 460,000 high-rate taxpayers, two-thirds of the House of Lords, and 60,000 expats in sunnier climes. None of those sound in desperate need of cash to pay their gas bills.

The next day, the Department for Education unveiled the details of the pupil premium, extra education funding for young people from deprived backgrounds. This payment has repeatedly been used by ministers as a shield in the EMA discussion, as if it would compensate for their loss.

The studies that provided the groundwork for the premium suggested it should be carefully differentiated. So how targeted is it? Compared to EMAs, not at all. Instead of three levels of payment linked to different brackets of parental income, it is a single payment of pound;430 for those eligible for free school meals - a measurement one of Gove's own advisers had previously dismissed as "crude".

The Government may have been heartened by the cynical response to the EMA demonstration from some adults on Twitter, who snarked that the money was only spent on alcohol and iPhones. However, the 157 Group of leading colleges' report on the "bottom line" for students shows that to be a myth. By its calculations a bare minium of pound;225 million is needed (entirely for transport and equipment) to allow young people from deprived backgrounds to stay in education - pound;200 million more than the current budget for the learner support fund set to replace the EMA. The "bottom line" is, of course, just that. Colleges should continue to push for more.

But how to bring this important argument to an even wider audience? Is it time to drag in rock bands and Prince Charles? Perhaps, but only in the mature way the FE sector has demonstrated so far. Get the Prince's Trust on board: it provides financial incentives for young people to continue in education, so must appreciate their value. Meanwhile, there is no need to bother with musicians' kids. FE should instead turn to the many actual stars it has supported in the past decade, starting with the Arctic Monkeys.

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