Scrapping the education maintenance allowance was a mistake

Labour manifesto pledge: Reintroduce the 16-19 Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA)

Shakira Martin argues FOR

Scrapping the education maintenance allowance scheme in England was a mistake. Plain and simple. The coalition government did a U-turn on their education policy centred on ‘fairness and equality of opportunity for all’. Against all their rhetoric it took away from those who needed the help most. Labour’s commitment to reinstating the scheme if elected next month are a step in the right direction on the road to recovery for FE.

EMA made a significant difference to those from low-income backgrounds, covering essentials such as food, books and transport. It wasn’t perfect but it eased educational disadvantage and scrapping it has had major repercussions on students from lower-income families. At the time of implementation in 2004, financial constraints were seen as a barrier to involvement in post-16 education, it aimed to directly reduce the cost of education as a means for raising their participation (including influencing retention and attainment).

READ MORE: Why should we give away tax payers’ money so students can buy fast food?

Many students were struggling then, and they’re still struggling now.

We know from our own research that many find it difficult to cover their course costs with half stating that they had considered dropping out due to financial worries. This manifesto finally says to post-16 learners that our politicians are ready to invest in young people again and provide a real ladder to opportunities, skills and jobs.

The introduction of a 16-19 bursary fund to ‘replace’ it didn’t even come close to filling the dark hole that cutting EMA left behind, at just a third of the previous budget dedicated to young learners it barely scratches the surface when tackling the needs of students in hardship. Many are faced with a postcode lottery, depending on the area in which they live means they could be awarded strikingly different amounts. And that’s only if they’ve been told about the fund to begin with, with many being told to only apply for funding ‘if they need it’ – firmly placing the burden on the student.

The introduction of a 16-19 bursary fund didn’t even come close to filling the dark hole that cutting EMA left behind

It’s clear that the overall budget of the post 16 bursary and its discretionary nature are inadequate to meet the needs of FE students. For several years NUS has been calling for a new and improved EMA, which is why we’re particularly pleased to see that Labour has pledged to re-introduce the payments awarded to 16-19 year olds if elected on 8 June.

It isn’t the first time Labour has declared its promise to poorer students, back in October 2016 at Labour Party conference, shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner spoke about restoring EMA. An unknown on both occasions is exactly how much Labour would commit to the reintroduction of payments, going back to the old scheme would result in means-tested weekly payments of £10 – £30 for those from households earning less that £31,000.

It has been close to 7 years since the government announced it was removing the allowance for those studying in England. Inflation is real. To adequately keep up we’d need to see weekly payments of around £40 and increase the family income threshold and maintain a small discretionary fund for emergencies.

Currently young learners are not receiving the crucial financial backup they need to get to their place of learning and thrive within it. We need to be supporting those who rely on further education institutions, not shutting them out.


Shakira Martin is President-elect of the National Union of Students

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