On the 20th of October this year David Cameron announced that EMA would be scrapped at the end of the academic year 2010/2011. More recently some details of what they propose to replace it with have emerged although these have been more about the general form the new system will take rather than concrete details. Until the details of the new system are announced it would be premature to say that replacing EMA is necessarily a good/bad idea so, in the meantime, a debate of the relative merits and failings of EMA would seem to be a good place to start.
First, an overview: EMA is a weekly payment of £10, £20 or £30 to students staying in education after the age of 16, based on their parents’ income. Students whose parents’ joint income is lower than £30,810 receive £10 a week; £25,521, £20 a week and £20,817, £30 a week. The EMA payments are only made however, if the student attends every lesson. These payments are intended to help students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds access further education.
One of the biggest problems with EMA is the eligibility criteria. A family with 4 children earning £31,000 a year would receive no support whereas a family with a single child earning £25,000 a year would receive £20 a week despite, arguably, the former being more likely to need financial support. Moreover, the measure of parents’ joint outcome doesn’t take into account maintenance payments in the case of separated parents. This has led to the situation where a number of students (indeed, a few who I know myself) are attending very expensive private schools, paid for out of contributions from their divorced parent, and are still in receipt of EMA. In short, the eligibility criteria are not based on the financial situation of the student which has led to the position where a very large number of students are judged as being ‘eligible’ despite being under no financial burden as a result of their education.
According to surveys commissioned by the government and conducted by the NFER (National Foundation for Education Research), only 14% of recipients of EMA said that they wouldn’t have continued in education without the payments. I can say as someone who receives EMA and who knows people who also receive it that this figure doesn’t surprise me, in fact, I would have expected it to be lower than 14%. This is because, for the great majority of recipients (myself included), they don’t need the payments to fund their education. Some students need to buy textbooks and general supplies such as stationery and school bags but these costs don’t come anywhere near £10 a week, let alone £30 a week. As a result, most of the recipients of EMA treat it effectively as pocket money, spending it on clothes or games or mobile phones or whatever else you care to think of. At a time when the nation’s budget is having to make significant cuts in public expenditure, EMA would seem like a scheme that has an awful lot of wastage of funds which could be put to better use elsewhere. EMA costs £560 million a year and so, if you take those 86% of students for whom it doesn’t affect their choice of continuing in education, that’s just more than £480 million that is being wasted.
However, it should also be recognised that some of those 14% of EMA recipients do genuinely need it. In the majority of these cases the main costs incurred are for transport to/from school or college. Anyone who commutes to work on public transport can tell you that transport can easily cost £20 a week or more. However, this affects very few students because most students live relatively close to their chosen school/college. The average travel distance for post-16 students is 1.3 miles, a distance easily walkable. There are a small minority of students who live far enough away from their school or college to have to take public transport and even fewer of those aren’t in a position to pay for it themselves. All of this means that the proportion of all students who face financial barriers to continuing in higher education is very small, no larger than 5% of all students, if that.
On the other hand, just how much is £480 million? It might seem like a lot but let’s put it in context. The education budget is about £70 billion, the 25% cuts in the education budget are still £17.5 billion. So, EMA costs a mere 0.7% of the education budget and a mere 3% of the cuts to the budget, but raises the number of young people continuing in education by about 5% of total student numbers. This would then, seem like a comparatively efficient way of encouraging young people to further their education.
This argument however, misses a very significant point. Attendance and participation are not important in terms of education. What is important is outcomes, if you raise attendance by 5% but if that 5% get straight U’s at the end of their courses then it’s been a waste of time and money. The problem with EMA is that whilst there are some students who genuinely want an education but can’t afford it, there are even more who don’t want an education but see it as a convenient way to make £30 a week for sitting around doing nothing. Of the 14% of recipients who say they wouldn’t be in education if it weren’t for EMA, only a small number actually intended to have an education in the first place. The rest of the 14% are only there for the £30 a week and an awful lot of teachers who have spoken out on the subject have pointed to these students as being generally disruptive, a detrimental influence on those who genuinely want to learn and as creating an extra workload on teachers who are overworked as it is.
I receive £30 a week at the moment and I can categorically say that maybe £2 a week actually goes on my education. Apart from the possibility of £50-£100 at the start of the year for textbooks and supplies, the only cost that students really occur as part of their education is transport to and from school/college and the occasional school trip. It is relatively easy to find out which students incur costs as a result of travel to/from school and even easier to work out how much it costs them. It is harder with textbooks but even if you gave all the students who receive EMA £90 to purchase textbooks at the start of term, that’s only 3 weeks’ worth of EMA which is far cheaper than 33 weeks’ worth under the current system. This way you could make sure that any student who genuinely wants an education doesn’t have to forego it on account of financial burdens but that those who don’t really want one aren’t bribed to take one anyway and just sit around all day being disruptive in class and creating work for teachers in return for their £30 a week.
In summary, EMA, whilst it does help those who genuinely needs it, also spends millions on at least 10 times as many students who don’t need it and encourages some young people who have no intention whatsoever of getting an education to turn up anyway, which has a detrimental effect on those students who genuinely want to learn. So, EMA could almost certainly be done far more efficiently and the government (as long as their replacement system doesn’t miss out those 5% of students who genuinely need financial support) would seem to be doing the best thing in replacing it and whilst I will certainly miss my £30 a week I can’t honestly say losing it is going to impact on my education in any way whatsoever.