EMA: Were we wrong?

By Callum Morton

Say Educational Maintenance Allowance to most Liberal Youth members and you tend to receive a rant about how pointless the scheme was. These members, on the whole, have never truly experienced the widespread difference EMA made to hundreds of thousands of students. Some haven’t set foot in Further Education for years and only take their own experiences of the scheme into account.

I was fortunate to be President of a Further Education Students’ Union for two years, and was also on the National Union of Students Further Education Committee for a year. I got to know the true impact of EMA and met hundreds of students on the scheme. With the aid of some common Q&A and criticisms, I’ll try to explain that below as well as why Liberal Democrats were wrong to agree to its abolition.

What were the positives about EMA?

The point of EMA was to increase the number of young people from lower income families staying on in post-16 education. Enrolment figures, attendance and retention all increased under the scheme. But what was interesting was that EMA also increased success rates, resulting in young people being more likely to be able to head onto Higher Education if they so wished to.

Definitely a social mobility win.

Students on EMA didn’t really need the money. They just spent the money on booze and socialising.

Students spent EMA on a whole host of things. Of course there were the obvious costs – course materials, transport. But sometimes students spent EMA on rent, food, presents, yes even alcohol, fags or clothes!

The thing to remember is that EMA was never brought in to be perfect. It was introduced to encourage students from lower income families to continue to post-16 education. It removed financial barriers to education.

But the government cited a survey that found out 9 out of 10 students didn’t need EMA?

This survey didn’t give a true reflection on the difference EMA made to young people’s lives. The respondents were largely white year 11 & 12s – not exactly comparable to the cohort of EMA recipients, and people who hadn’t even reached Further Education yet! It was flawed research.

NUS’ EMA Satisfaction Survey gave a far more accurate picture, finding that 55% of EMA recipients wouldn’t be able to take part in education without it – a statistic that equated to over 300,000 young people.

The government has put a discretionary replacement scheme in place, as well as bursaries. We never needed EMA.

It’s too early to tell whether EMA’s replacement is working, but early signs suggest that it isn’t what the government promised. Many FE providers are seeing drops in enrolment figures and many college leaders and principals are blaming this drop on EMA’s abolition. With rising numbers of young people not in education, employment, or training (NEETs) it doesn’t take a genius to work out what is happening to this country’s next generation.

Labour were planning on scrapping the scheme anyway.

We’ll never know if the Labour party would have kept EMA had they won the last General Election, although members of NUS have expressed extreme disappointment to me that Labour won’t commit to reintroducing the scheme if they win the next election. Even if they were planning on scrapping the scheme, it’s not justification for the coalition government to enslave young people by poverty.

The compulsory education leaving age is increasing to 18 in 2015 anyway, so we no longer need EMA.

This is the argument against EMA that really gets me and many young people irate. EMA was a huge breakthrough in removing barriers to young people from lower income families continuing in education. It meant young people could afford the transport into college, as well as any course materials they needed (hair & beauty students in particular fork out around £600 for uniform and equipment).

Increasing the age that people have to stay on in education will not suddenly mean young people can fund their education.

So what would you have rather been done about the situation? And what should be done now?

I appreciate EMA wasn’t perfect. Some students genuinely didn’t need the money and would have gone to post-16 education without it. On the other hand, some students needed it and weren’t applicable. NUS produced results of its EMA Satisfaction Survey a few years ago, which identified the problems with the scheme and put forward recommendations to improve it.

After EMA was abolished, the government staged several u-turns which resulted in a better replacement for students. But all the confusion almost certainly meant students from lower income families didn’t feel that post-16 education was for them. Many would have attended open days and thought about applying in January, only for the final replacement scheme to be announced in the summer holiday – too late for students from lower-income families to feel financial secure and apply.

So EMA should have remained, but targeted to the 55% of students who needed it. But we are where we are, so what do I want done now? Well…

NUS has just produced a ‘pound in your pocket’ asking several questions about financial support for young people. This will hopefully tell us whether EMA’s replacement is up to scratch and, if it turns out that it isn’t, a u-turn should be on the cards.

After only a couple of Lib Dems rebelled on tuition fees, I had to seriously look at why I was a member of the party. Being a Lib Dem to me was all about believing in an open society in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity – our key belief that whether poor or rich, everyone can have the opportunities to be who they want to be.

I think there’s definitely a case for saying that Liberal Democrats have lost their way in coalition. I for one can’t count the number of blogs I’ve seen from Lib Dem members proposing illiberal ideas – leaving the EU, supporting the increase in tuition fees, agreeing with welfare reforms, etc. If we’re going to win back any of our lost support in 2015, we need to fight for our core policies to shine in everything we do.

If we had done this on the issue of Educational Maintenance Allowance, we’d have recognised that the scheme was very comparable to our core beliefs. That it DID reduce the number of 16-19 year olds enslaved by poverty. That is WAS more economically beneficial to the country and to families than if it were to not exist. That it DID break down vital poverty barriers to education. Yes, we would have recognised it wasn’t perfect, but we would have worked on improving the scheme as it was, not running along with the Conservative mantra about discretionary being better. As a result of being conformist and frankly a bit ignorant (Further Education students used to be extremely apathetic before EMA was abolished and this aspect was ignored), we joined the Tories in introducing a poor replacement and enslaving young people by poverty.

I remember seeing Simon Hughes at Lib Dem Conference, waving the preamble to our constitution on the back of his business card around saying that Liberal Democrats owned the social mobility agenda. The ability of us as a party to believe in our values, yet to not act them out, is astonishing.

EMA wasn’t perfect. But to the young people who received it, it was a life changer. If its replacement turns out to be extremely misguided, I believe as a party we need to take a look again at our core values and #saveEMA.

Callum Morton is currently a Conference Committee Member in Liberal Youth. He tweets regularly via @callum_morton


7 thoughts on “EMA: Were we wrong?

  1. As someone who’s father earned a six figure salary, and attended a private sixth form, but still found myself in receipt of EMA (as the system did not take into account divorced parents), I saw the need for EMA reform first hand.

    You are right to say that for some people, EMA was a life changer, but that’s not a reason not to reform it. Whilst there were still people like me eligible to receive EMA, it was clear an overhaul of the system was needed.

    The key is tackling the inefficiency, effectively stop me getting EMA and make sure that those who do need it, get it. As far as I can see, that’s what the governments reforms are doing (although I accept your point that they implemented them in a cack-handed manner).

    The problem I have with the Save EMA campaign is that it comes from the lazy assumption that because some people benefit from it, we shouldn’t try to make it better. The government is right to make EMA more efficient, and make sure that it is targeted only at those who need it. Otherwise you’re subsidising the rich, something I suspect from your blog you would not support.

    1. Agree with a lot of what you’ve said, and I’m totally in support of EMA reform. From my experience though introducing a dicretionary scheme, where a couple of staff members in the student support office add a subjective stance on whether someone receives financial support, is not the way forward!


      1. I think the EMA highlights a problem right across the welfare system. There are people who are receiving child tax credits, winter fuel payments, EMA etc. who are millionaires! People who are paying tax on £20k are effectively subsidising the rich. I’d think it’d much more liberal to means test these benefits. Give them to fewer people and either use the savings to increase what they receive or to lower taxes.

  2. Whether you believe in tuition fees or not, surely the new system is fairer in that there’s zero cost up front?

    Nice article anyway!

    1. Cheers! I knew loads of people on EMA who didn’t need it, but I also met loads that did – the question is obviously about whether the replacement scheme is better, or whether we should have made EMA better than it was – for me it’s the latter!

      The new fees system is fairer than it could have been, but in my opinion it should have never have got to that stage. Should have been in the coalition agreement to keep fees as they were (and possibly make the system fairer too)

    2. I’m always baffled by how few people would agree with you! The repayment rates are more manageable too, and the new, higher income at which repayment starts is at least a fair reflection of the inflation that has occurred since tuition fees were first introduced.

      I’m not really in favour of tuition fees full stop, but for as long as the fetishisation of a university education persists alongside the social and financial neglect of apprenticeships and vocational training, it will be desirable for a significant proportion of young people to get a degree. And as long as that is the case, fees remain necessary. And as long as they are necessary, they might as well be as fair as possible.

      And from a Tory old-boy perspective, as long as university admission is both widespread and fair, it might as well at least be portrayed as prohibitively elitist in the hope that swathes of the impoverished and non-committal may be put off anyway until eventually so few remain that fees really can be abolished.

      Having been reproached more than once on the web, where intonation can’t be employed to distinguish the conspiratorially nutty from the tongue-in-cheek, I ought to specify I don’t actually believe that. Nonetheless I do find it odd that incumbent head boy Cameron and his image-savvy team of prefects did seemingly little to dispel allegations that the fee-hike heralded a new age of elitism before the idea permeated the national psyche.

      All of which being more tangential and tortuous than necessary I hope you’ll forgive me, and since I’m clearly in for a penny I might as well add that I agree with your second assertion too – it is indeed a nice article 😉

  3. A great article. My main issue with the replacement system is that, although it helps young people in the worst or most difficult of situations, there is still a great number who merely had finances as a barrier being left out. I know specifically as someone from a single parent environment that even though my mum earned a decent wage she certainly couldnt fork out the money needed if I was to attend a sixth form that was quite a travel away. I was lucky enough to live within walking distance, but many of my peers were from surrounding villages that were not an easy journey away. Some even had to get taxis! I think we need to watch the new system closely and see where its successes are and where it falls short on the success of EMA.

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