While the issue of hikes in higher education tuition fees has dominated education news in recent weeks, the disappearance of the education maintenance allowance (EMA) has felt like a `Cinderella' cause.
On Monday (13 December), a day of action culminating in a Westminster demonstration was held to protest against the EMA's abolition at the start of next year. While the numbers protesting were very small compared to their HE counterparts, those who showed up were passionate.
Students who have been promised the EMA for the current academic year will continue to receive it until the summer, but after that the money will be gone for good.
The Government's decision has united unions, students and managers in opposition and, on this week's day of action, one FE college boss. Andy Wilson, principal of Westminster Kingsway College in London, addressed a lunchtime protest of 16 to 18-year-old students outside the college's Gray's Inn Road campus.
"There's a really important difference between this and the tuition fees debate," Mr Wilson said. "There's a new system being put in place, whether you agree with the way it's being put in place or not. But there's nothing there to replace EMAs."
Of the 1,600 students at the college, 60 per cent receive the EMA payment of a maximum pound;30 per week. It is only paid if students attend classes - those who miss days or arrive late three or more times in the week do not get the allowance.
Mr Wilson added: "One of the most powerful things about the EMA is its impact on attendance and punctuality. Our attendance statistics have improved 7-8 per cent and last year we had a record year of returning students."
The Westminster Kingsway students who spoke to FE Focus all agreed it had improved attendance records, and 18-year-old Sarah Sarfo-Adu, who is studying for A-levels in media, sociology and ICT and receives the maximum allowance, admitted: "I don't think I would have come to college as much as I do."
Much of her allowance, she said, goes towards her family's household bills and opponents of the decision to scrap the EMA argue Sarah is typical of the kind of poorer student now in education who otherwise might not have bothered.
"It has meant some people are `released' by their family, or encouraged by their family to go to college, who otherwise would have had to go to work," Mr Wilson said.
He added that the introduction of the EMA 10 years ago meant fewer students have had to take part-time jobs to fund their studies. "They have been much more able to concentrate in class and do homework and assignments on time."
One Westminster Kingsway student facing the prospect of a part-time job is 16-year-old Jamel Tindale, who is studying A-level biology, chemistry and physics and aims to become a GP.
He said the decision to stop his pound;30-a-week EMA means his mother will have to work full-time, which in turn will see him picking up his younger brother and sister from their school nearly four miles away before returning to class.
Jamel admitted he was not looking forward to the new arrangements. "It will mean less revision time," he added.
FROM THE PROTESTS
- Jamel Tindale, 16
"I want to go to university to study medicine so I'm going to have to find a way to carry on. I spend the pound;30 a week on travel and food. I'm still going to be sticking with my A-levels but I think I'm going to have to get a part-time job. I think it's wrong that the EMA is going."
- Ogadinma Ozuruonye, 17
"I get pound;30 a week and spend it on stationery and books. If I have a little left over I will spend it on food. I have two older brothers at university in Luton and Manchester and my mum helps them out. The EMA helps me rather than my mum having to give me the money."
- Wunmi Ogbaro, 17
"I use it to get my lunch every day. I get pound;10 a week. I'll probably start making my own sandwiches now."
- Huseyin Nohut, 16
"I spend it on food, travel and books. It makes a vast difference. I will struggle to come to college by tube. The bus takes 90 minutes; by tube it takes 20-30 minutes - pound;30 a week less would mean I'd constantly be late for lessons. My parents might help with books but they struggle."