In the past few weeks, we have heard final details about the Discretionary Learner Support Fund that is to replace the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA). Managers in Further Education won’t be strangers to the idea of Learner Support Funds, but there are some distinct differences that make this one much more difficult to distribute.

Providing an unidentified number of students who are in receipt of income support, in care, are care leavers and / or are in receipt of Disability Living Allowance with a bursary of £1200; and then trying to negotiate a fair way of distributing what is left (with no guidelines to follow) to allow students to attend college and succeed. It’s not the easiest task, and it’s been made much more difficult by the government’s lack of communication and last-minute, slap-dash approach to funding formulae and allocations to colleges.

We are right to be angry at the last minute reduction in the funding multiplier, ultimately reduced to just £190 per maximum EMA recipient. We should also all be very aware that the final sum of 16-19 Bursary support is nowhere near the final £180million students were promised as it has now been deemed an “aspiration”.

Although the loss of EMA is not something that NUS intends to stop campaigning on, we need to get on with ensuring that students get the best possible deal from the new Discretionary Learner Support Fund while we continue to campaign against cuts to student support.

The first step is to review current methods of distributing Learner Support Funds that are already available, because the new system needs to be much further reaching to make up for the students who won’t be able to claim EMA.

We know the priority groups for the government do not provide holistic coverage of all the students at need in colleges.  We need to take in to consideration:

1. Students who would have been in the £10-£20 EMA brackets who now will not be automatically receiving any grant funding.

2. students who live in local authorities without sufficiently subsidised transport schemes

3. students on courses with high course costs (i.e. equipment for vocational courses and textbooks for academic subjects).

The most important thing colleges can do when reviewing their current systems is to involve students as much as possible in producing a set of fair, accessible and responsible policies around the new scheme. Invite student representatives to meetings where these review processes will be taking place, ask the Students’ Union to feed in to a consultation on the changes the college is having to make, and communicate all of these changes effectively to the student population at large.

There are other areas where colleges can help to reduce hidden costs in Further Education (and thereby reduce numbers of students who require access to the Learner Support Fund), work with local authorities to save and increase transport subsidies, and reduce equipment and college-incurred costs as much as possible (enrolment fees, application fees, materials fees and ID card charges).

NUS fully acknowledges that tough decisions have to be made by managers in FE. Where resource can be utilized elsewhere; it must, where the 5 per cent allowance for admin can be waved; it must too – our task, together, is to do everything to ensure no student drops out due to financial hardship, whilst also hammering the government on what is an inefficient and ineffective policy.

Toni Pearce, Vice President (FE), NUS Tweeting as @toni_pearce

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