College principals are furious after the Government announced cuts to the education maintenance allowance (EMA), amid fears it will substantially reduce the numbers of students from poorer homes.
The allowance, which gives students from lower income families a weekly benefit of up to pound;30, has helped boost post-16 education by around 30 per cent since it was introduced six years ago. Almost 70 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds receive the money.
But last week Chancellor George Osborne announced the allowance will be scrapped, alongside a number of other family and child benefits.
The Government is expected to save pound;500 million with the EMA cuts while assuring the FE sector that it will continue to invest pound;150 million in a new scheme.
Students will receive the EMA until the end of this academic year. The allowance will close to new applicants in January 2011.
Newham Sixth Form College in east London is among the top five colleges in the country for EMA intake. The cuts will affect 2,000 students at the college, totalling pound;2 million of benefits a year.
Eddie Playfair, the college principal, said: "The EMA cut is devastating. Educationally, it has made a huge difference in continuing studies. It's an example of a regressive measure that hits the poorest the hardest.
"The students really valued it - pound;30 a week makes a big difference to those young people and their families." Michael Farley, principal of Tower Hamlets College in east London, said he was "bitterly disappointed".
"Two-thirds of our students receive the EMA, and a vast majority are earning the maximum, receiving pound;30 a week in support," he said.
Earlier this year, the Government scrapped the bonus system, which gave EMA students a pound;100 bonus in January and July on top of their pound;10-pound;30 weekly allowance.
"Even the removal of the bonus scheme this year has been a challenge for staff to motivate attendance," Mr Farley said.
"Over the past six years post-16 participation has gone up by 30 per cent and I believe that correlates back to the fact that the EMA was introduced, encouraging people to stay on."
Andy Taylor, associate principal at St Francis Xavier Sixth Form College, where 72 per cent of students receive the benefit, said: "When the EMA was first introduced, our intake increased by 6 per cent," he said. "That 6 per cent is now threatened."
Aswathy Mohanlal, a former Newham Sixth Form College student now in the first year of a Portuguese and linguistics degree at Oxford University, said: "Even though I was one of those students who only got pound;10 a week, it was really helpful coming from a working-class background.
"The EMA truly helps those who need it. I know without it I would have had to work part-time and probably wouldn't have got the grades to get into Oxford."
OUT OF POCKET
How much do students get?
Annual household - EMA income
Up to pound;20,817 - pound;30 a week
pound;20,818-pound;25,521 - pound;20 a week
pound;25,522-pound;30,810 - pound;10 a week
pound;30,810+ - Nothing
Figures are for 201011 academic year.