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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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.