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Bye Bye Bonuses

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No this isn’t an article about bankers, although I’m sure that would be brilliant. Instead, it’s not the bonuses of bankers being taken away; it’s the bonuses of students. But, unlike in the world of finance, it’s the people that really need help that will be getting it.

This weekend, Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children Schools and Families, announced that from January 2011, twice yearly bonuses paid to EMA claimants will be scrapped. NUS has been very clear that under no circumstances can the overall budget spent on supporting students continue in education be reduced – which is why I am pleased to see that the money being saved on bonuses will mean that over 80,000 extra young people will be entitled to the vital support that EMA offers, widening access and opportunity.

I’ve said countless times that not enough is being done to get the one million young people who are not in training, education or employment off the streets. Government have scraped around, searching behind the sofa and under the bed to find what can only be described as a scratch on the surface in terms of places in FE (which includes work based training).

So more has to be done, which is why I was pleased to see this week that the right support is being made available to unemployed young people now after six months instead of 12 as a result of extra funding being released in the Pre-Budget Report. But we must still ask the question is this enough? Already we are seeing FE providers over enrolling on courses to attempt to meet demand, placing additional strains on already stretched resources; something which the PBR also identified. Time will tell if the risks taken, albeit for all the right reasons, pay off for our colleges and training providers.

We still have alot of work to do in keeping the pressure on to defend the EMA, particularly as we are still waiting for a Conservative Party position on it.

I also want to point out that now is a really odd time to make such as announcement. There is currently a DCSF consultation on 16-18 financial support, which NUS FE and Welfare Zones are responding to, so why announce this now? The Liberal Democrats have been rather outspoken on their distaste for EMA bonuses recently, are we seeing some Lab/Lib Dem pandering? Who knows, but there’s one final question on my mind about the timing and manner of this announcement:

Why do some politicians think it’s OK to pre-empt some reviews and totally refuse to comment on others (obviously referring to the HE fees review)?

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It’s about now I want to say a few more things about some attitudes which exist about the EMA which, in my opinion, should not be a controversial topic. So for people like the rightwing think-tank Reform to totally disregard the impact EMA has had on the lives of people in our poorest communities I have just three words … get a grip.

And if you want some evidence, let me take you back to January 2008 where Liberata catastrophically messed up on the administration of EMA payments, leaving hundreds of thousands of students without any money. I was President of my college’s Students’ Union at the time so was fully aware of the situation people were left in. I saw students arriving for 9am lessons having just completed an all night shift as a cleaner in a nightclub in town, I saw students taking afternoons off because they got some overtime, I even saw lecturers disappear in their cars and come back with Tesco bags full of food. Students need and value EMA.

Let’s have a look at what the Taxpayer’s Alliance and Institute of Directors had to say in their report, “How to Save £50 billion: Reducing Spending for Sustainable Public Finance”. In it they say that participation hasn’t improved under the EMA and “EMA is not a good use of money. It should be abolished”. I wonder if the IoD or Taxpayers Alliance have ever been to an FE college – my guess is that they’ve probably driven past one once but their experience stretches no further than that. I also wonder exactly what they think “sustainable public finances” are when we already have a million young people not in training, employment or education. I say that that figure would be much higher, and the proportion of low-income students would be much higher, if we take their ill-informed recommendations.

NUS recognises that the EMA is no longer simply an incentive as it was marketed at national roll-out in 2004. There’s a reason why it’s called a Maintenance Allowance. Transport costs continue to rise, additional course costs such as materials fees and constantly rising with value for money being questioned and we need to be honest about the other costs young people face that the bank of Mum and Dad is less likely to fund you through like driving lessons and leisure activities.

I close with a challenge. Let’s gain political support for the EMA by getting our MPs to sign EDM 422. Let’s slam down any suggestion that financial support for the least well off students is a “waste of money” and get behind the NUS Fix It Back It Campaign.

Shane Chowen is vice president (FE) of the NUS, a confederation of 600 FE and higher students’ unions

Read other FE News articles by Shane Chowen:

FE through the eyes of students

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