Some 150,000 students have been left waiting for their entitlements after technical failures delayed processing of the Government’s Educational Maintenance Allowance claims (EMA).

The EMA is a Government allowance entitling claimants to up to £30 a week to aid with their studies. The scheme was started to encourage more teenagers to stay in education, rather than leave aged 16-19 to seek minimum wage employment. It has so far proved a valuable incentive for young people from low-income families, who would otherwise be unable to support themselves through further education. 500,000 students are believed to receive the grant.

The delays were reportedly caused by a software malfunction at the offices of private contractor Liberata, who were paid £80m to administer the EMA entitlements to students around the UK. The Learning and Skills Council (LSC), who are responsible for ensuring that claimants receive their entitlements, have been "pushing hard and complaining hard" for Liberata to resolve their technical difficulties, which involve their online systems and also their telephone helpline. Liberata have since taken on 400 extra members of staff to help tackle the backlog.

As a result of the crisis, South Cheshire College has volunteered its own funds to issue emergency loans to its students to keep them in education.

Wes Streeting, President of the National Union of Students (NUS), commented: "The EMA is a vital source of day-to-day support for hundreds of thousands of students in further education, without which many would not be able to continue their courses and would have to drop out. It is unacceptable that students up and down the country will be left to struggle due to administrative incompetence. These delays and difficulties must be resolved as soon as possible.

"NUS would like to congratulate South Cheshire College for taking the brave decision to bail out the LSC by giving payments to students in order to keep them in education. It would be immensely helpful if other colleges could do the same until these delays can be resolved and a full and thorough investigation can be launched. In the meantime, the Government should guarantee that colleges taking this approach on behalf of their students will be fully reimbursed."

Beth Walker, NUS Vice President added: "The Ministers responsible and the Learning and Skills Council have a duty to apologise to learners across the country, explain why they have not acted to resolve these problems, and to offer a timescale for their resolution. There must be a full investigation into why many thousands learners have been failed; this catastrophic situation must never occur again.

"Every year, students have to struggle through unwieldy levels of bureaucracy to obtain the EMA. The Government must keep its side of the bargain by not putting students at risk through bad contracts, shoddy procedures and ropey technology, as has too often been the case in the past."

By Ryan Daff

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