Experts have called for a review of the student financial support system in FE after figures revealed that thousands of teenagers receive as little as a third of what their slightly older counterparts get for studying the same college courses.
Student leaders have called the situation “outrageous”, saying that it puts learners from some of the poorest communities at even further disadvantage.
Figures obtained from NUS Scotland by TESS suggest that all colleges have students who regularly receive the £30-a-week education maintenance allowance (EMA), rather than FE bursaries, which are significantly higher. A student staying with their parents would receive £74.79 per week at least, rising to £94.52 per week for those supporting themselves.
At some institutions, only students under the age of 18 receive EMA, but at other colleges students up to the age of 20 are getting it. College leaders said that the limited bursary funding they received was in part to blame for the high uptake of EMA.
In total, 7,874 students have received EMA in 2015-16. At Fife College alone, 1,272 students aged under 20 receive EMA, as do 1,056 under-19s at New College Lanarkshire.
Fife College said that the bursary funding the college received for students was capped by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC).
“We currently do not receive enough bursary money to support the number of students who are benefiting from learning at Fife College and therefore have to rely on the EMA funding to support these students,” a spokesperson said. Last week, figures from the SFC showed that colleges had requested an additional £4.2 million for student support in 2015-16, but only 43 per cent of requests were met by the funding council, leaving a shortfall of £2.3 million.
‘Poorest students hit’
NUS Scotland president Vonnie Sandlan said that students in FE continued to be the few who received support based on age rather than the level of study. “It’s outrageous to think that there could be two students on the same course, with the exact same background and needs, but one is receiving potentially three times a week less than the other because they’re a few months younger,” she said.
“Colleges support some of Scotland’s most deprived communities. Those same students deserve to be on an equal footing, with a guarantee to the funding they deserve.”
Ms Sandlan said the EMA, a means-tested payment, was a vital lifeline for many young people who remain in school after the age of 16. “However, EMA shouldn’t be used as a replacement for vital FE bursaries, or a way to manage the cash-limited budget that exists in FE. It’s another example of the inequality that exists in an FE support system in need of reform,” she added. “Ahead of the Scottish parliament elections, we’ll be calling on all parties to address the much-needed shake up to the FE support system.”
Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said: “The current system of student support needs to be changed to ensure that fairness and transparency is at its heart and everyone can access the funds that they need in good time.” She said that Colleges Scotland supported the provision of fully-funded bursaries for 18 and 19-year-olds, at a level that meant they were financially better off attending college than receiving benefits.
The Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Mary Scanlon said that learning at college was different from learning in school and student support should reflect that. “We have always stressed that bursary support should be increased,” she added.
The Scottish government said that it had invested more than £105 million in further education student support this year. A spokesman added that the shortfall in funding would be met in full through the redirection of funds. “We expect colleges to carefully consider the best option for every student – taking into account their individual needs and circumstances,” they said.