Campaigning to save EMA

>I write this article after months of campaigning by students all across the UK to save the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) – a financial incentive for students from lower income families to stay on in education. Around 647,000 of England’s 16 to 18-year-olds receive the EMA, which was introduced in 2004. Through the allowance, teenagers receive £10, £20 or £30 a week depending on household income. The money is intended for use on books, course equipment, and travelling to school or college, and is stopped if students do not work hard or attend class regularly.

Ever since the announcement that EMA would be scrapped, students from all regions have been emailing MPs, signing up to petitions, turning up at constituency offices, and organising protests. Students, teachers, principals and governors have joined together to oppose this move, fearing that students will be priced out of education.

As a college Students’ Union President, the abolition of EMA deeply concerns me. The majority of students receiving EMA rely on the weekly payments. I’ve met hair/beauty students forking out £600 a year in course materials alone, and A Level students spending £60 a week on train fares, even with a third off due to the 16- 25 railcard!

When talking to students from all areas of the UK about the cut to EMA, many come back to me with the same reply. “I just won’t be able to afford to come to college.” A National Union of Students EMA Satisfaction Survey found that 55% of students receiving EMA (59% of those receiving the full £30 a week,) couldn’t attend college without it.

Not only does EMA encourage students to attend classes, but evidence from a report by the 157 Group proves that it has a significantly positive impact on retention and achievement too. It stated that “the EMA has led to increased participation in FE colleges by around 7 percentage points”, that “the EMA has reduced drop-out rates in colleges by around 5 percentage points on average,” and that “the EMA is directly associated with strong increases in success rates, particularly for the most disadvantaged students.”

The idea that EMA has an impact on success rates was supported by IFS researchers, who found that in areas where EMA was available, students as a whole were around 2 percentage points more likely to reach the thresholds for levels 2 and 3 of the national qualifications framework. They also had A Level grades on average 4 percentage points higher on the UCAS tariff.

Other findings in the 157 Group report include:

  • The EMA strengthens the ability for learners to make a choice about what course they want to study, by helping to cover the costs of equipment and course materials.
  • The EMA helps to support learners who would otherwise have to apply for hardship funds, which are already over-stretched in FE colleges.

Those against EMA often claim that students don’t use the money for its designated purposes, course equipment, travel, books, etc, and instead use it to fund alcohol, games and other non-essential items. However, the 157 Group report investigated this claim too, and found that “by and large, the EMA is used most widely for funding travel to and from college, and without it, many learners feel they would not be able to study in FE.”

Whilst EMA is being scrapped, the government has announced that it would provide colleges with enhanced Discretionary Learner Support Funds, otherwise known as ‘hardship’ funds. Colleges would then have the responsibility of distributing the money to students who need financial support to stay on in education. Having spoken to students, there is a great sense of distrust that colleges will be able to identify students who need financial support. To be fair, colleges seem daunted at the prospect. Furthermore, hardship funds often run out in colleges within the first term. With this fact, coupled with the rise in students requiring financial support due to the abolition of EMA, it is clear that an enhanced Discretionary Learner Support Fund simply won’t do it.

It was announced at a heated ‘Save EMA’ public meeting on Monday, by Shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham, that on Wednesday 19th January politicians will gather in the House of Commons to debate and vote on the abolition of the EMA. Initially, the proposal to remove EMA did not need to pass through parliament as EMA isn’t part of any law. However, as a result of a massive campaign, led by students and co-ordinated with trade unions, a debate has been scheduled, and a vote has been called. Many in the FE sector will continue to push for the government to save EMA right until the last moment. The vast majority of people who have seen first hand the impact of EMA know of its importance, and support it fully.

There is much planned action ahead of the EMA vote in the Commons on 19th January:

  1. Students e-mail their local MP about how EMA has made a difference to their education and why it should not be scrapped. It is crucial that MPs see the personal stories in this campaign and that they aren’t blinded by unrepresentative statistics.
  2. A Day of Action ahead of the vote. This will put even more media pressure on government MPs to vote the right way the next day, by showing how passionately both students and our supporters feel about the issue. This might include lunchtime / after college protests, handing in petitions to constituency offices.
  3. A National Lobby on the Vote. Students and student representatives meet MPs to discuss in person why they should vote ‘no’ to the abolition of EMA.

The Save EMA Campaign is being co-ordinated in partnership with UCU, UNITE, UNISON, ATL, NUT, NASUWT and GMB.

Callum Mortin is Student Union President at Amersham & Wycombe College Students’ Union

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