A “super survey” carried out by the Association of Colleges to assess the impact of the withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowance has revealed low enrolment figures indicating that the most disadvantaged students have been priced out of education. Government spokespeople have been quick to try to interpret the data to their advantage but the facts are damning.
The survey shows that an enormous 49% of colleges have seen lower numbers of students signing up for courses this year compared to previous years, with enrolment periods forced to stay open longer than usual in an attempt to attract more pupils. College heads unequivocally cited the scrapped EMA as the biggest single cause of decreased student numbers, with many going on to point out that without the financial support it provided, their poorest students were simply physically unable to make it to college. Fiona McMillan, principal of Bridgwater College, explained: “We know of students who cannot afford to get to college…For people with very little, any extra cost is too much.”
This evidence starkly contrasts with government claims that the £560 million per year EMA scheme was being abused by youngsters who would have been able to attend college with or without the extra financial support. Whilst this may have been true of a minority, it simply falls far short of justifying the replacement of the scheme with a vastly reduced £180 million bursary scheme – tantamount to suggesting that a ridiculous 68% of those receiving the EMA were ‘unworthy’ of financial support – clearly an unrealistic claim.
The new figures clearly prove that many students written off by the government as not really needing the grant have now been forced out of college education for good. The government has claimed that the figures are misleading, pointing to the fact that 42% of colleges actually reported an increased course uptake. However a more detailed analysis of the figures makes it clear that these higher enrolment levels refer to “the upper end of the skill level” – A level courses and their equivalents. These are not the courses most attended by those students in need of financial support. In addition, college heads, those best placed to give an accurate analysis of the dropping enrolment figures, have confirmed that it is the students from disadvantaged and poorer backgrounds who are failing to come back to college. Ms McMillan warned that the problem could have a serious impact on youth crime and gangs, pointing out that those belonging to the demographic now forced out of sixth form education are likely to be “hanging around and not doing very much”.
The inadequacy of the government’s £180 million bursary replacement scheme and blundering and confusion surrounding its implementation have been highlighted by the extraordinary lengths to which individual colleges are being forced to go to support their students as a result. The survey revealed that many colleges are turning to their own already overstretched budgets to top up financial support for the poorest students in a desperate bid to keep them in education – the irony being that their lower budgets then have a negative impact on the quality of that education.
The government claimed that the changing of the EMA to the new bursary scheme would mean that the same financial support would be available, but only to carefully vetted students who were truly in need of it. Yet McMillan laid the facts bare, explaining that under the new scheme a pupil who had qualified for the £1000 per year EMA support was now only entitled to funding of £152 annually under the new scheme. Poorer students are simply being forced out of education altogether as a result, with ministers and campaigners fearing that “class is being brought back into the classroom” and that “children born into poverty are going to stay in poverty”. The recent devastating figures on youth unemployment only serve as a further warning of the terrifying drop out underclass the government is creating by pricing poorer students at all levels out of education.