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Change for the better: The end of EMA

    uest blog from our current intern, Thomas Busby

    For those not up-to-date with your further education-related news, the current system of grants to students aged 16-19, the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), is to be cut by the Coalition government.  Education Secretary Michael Gove announced last week that the budget for these grants will drop from £560m to £180m, and a new bursary scheme will be put in its place with an emphasis on providing more for the poorest students.

    My personal experience suggests that this move away from the current system is definitely a good idea.  At the sixth-form college I attended, there were a great many people who managed to claim the EMA despite living in five bedroom houses and driving to college every day.

    At the time, it felt a little odd and certainly unfair. Hearing that someone purchased an Xbox with their January EMA bonus as you fret about your A-level grades is not great for morale. Especially when you know that person didn’t need the money in the first place.

    Looking back now, it’s easy to see that it was a badly run scheme with obvious loopholes.

    The prime loophole involved eligibility. The system was means-tested such that those in households earning less than £20,817 could claim the maximum £30 per week; households earning up to £25,521 could claim £20 per week; and those with household income up to £30,810, £30 per week.

    These criteria seem pretty fair and straightforward on paper, but issues arose with claimants who had divorced parents.  It was simple really.  One parent filled out the form, stating their own income, and that constituted the claimant’s household income.  The fact that many of these people were financially supported by both of their divorced parents was not factored in to the equation.

    It’s important to note here that I am not placing the blame on divorced parents, single parents, or even the children of divorced parents – the issue was with the system.  There was clearly no real appetite for monitoring who claimed EMA, and thus it was too generous to those who didn’t need it.  It provided a useful service to those families who relied on this money to fund the education of their children, but plenty of people claimed it because they could – not because they needed to.

    It also created perverse incentives through being based on attendance. This led to situations where people went to college for the sake of receiving the money, rather than for the sake of receiving an education. The whole system was a waste of time unless students who received EMA spent their time ‘in education’ actually being educated.  All it did realistically was reward those who could sit still for 6 hours a day.

    These problems explain why the proposed new system makes a lot of sense.  By using the money that is available to target those in most need of it (those in very low income households, those in care, etc.) and by devolving the role of distributing the rest of the available funds to the schools and colleges themselves, the Coalition Government has provided an excellent example of making cuts fair.  The system will be more efficient by directing the money towards those who truly need it, whilst cutting administrative costs at the government level by giving the institutions themselves the role of allocating the remaining funds.

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