Gove’s EMA replacement will not work

The Education Secretary’s “bursary scheme” is inadequate and ineffective.

This week Michael Gove announced the government's plans to replace the £550m Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) with a £180m bursary scheme.

There was also a small victory for the Save EMA campaign as the government listened to our "A Deal's A Deal" campaign, which threatened a legal challenge unless the government provided support to those students currently receiving EMA who started courses on the premise that they would receive financial support throughout their two-year course.

However, although we have won this battle, the war to save EMA continues, in full.

The government has reduced the funding for the replacement of EMA by around 70 per cent. In addition, it is giving a meagre 77p-a-week increase to only 12,000 students, while many of their classmates – who could be only very marginally better off – probably would not qualify for the new scheme whereas they would have under EMA.

For example, if a student starts a course in September this year he or she won't get the replacement for EMA (the Discretionary Learner Support Fund), whereas they would have got EMA if they came from a family whose household income was below £31,000 a year. More importantly, if their family's annual income is below £21,000 a year – like 80 per cent of EMA recipients – they will be bereft of financial support.

This is clearly not an adequate replacement for the previous scheme.

In a review of Gove's announcement of the government's substitute for EMA, the independent research organisation the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) today agrees with us and strongly critiques the replacement scheme.

Here are the key findings of the IFS:

On the government's claim of giving children on free school meals (FSM) £800 more than under EMA, the IFS claims these students could actually be "worse off":

It must be the case that most such students would be worse off under the bursary scheme than they would have been under the EMA – on average, to the tune of £370 a year. Furthermore, allocating the bursary fund in this way implies that other EMA recipients not currently eligible for free school meals would in future receive nothing.

The IFS also claims it could also have an affect on attainment levels:

. . . if students must apply for the bursary after enrolment, then they will not know, when applying for a place in post-16 education, whether they will receive a bursary – and if so, how much. This could have an impact on their decision to stay on in the first place.

But what is most shocking is that the IFS believes the new scheme could actually have more "dead weight " than EMA:

It could be given to high-achieving, low-income students – perhaps the type of students who would have stayed in full-time education anyway.

It is yet more evidence that the last thing we should be doing is scrapping EMA. If the scheme the government wants to replace it with is clearly more inadequate than EMA, why are we even considering wasting taxpayers' money changing it?

James Mills is campaign director of the Save EMA campaign.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.