In all the excitement over tuition fees there’s been an alarming silence from the media about the policy of scrapping Educational Maintenance Allowance. It should be at the centre of the debate. If kids are forced to drop out of school at sixteen because their parents can’t support them for two years while they get A-levels, it matters very little what grants the new tuition fees scheme makes available to them at eighteen.
The EMA was introduced by Labour to do exactly what this coalition government say they want to do: help people to improve their own life chances through hard work and education.
The arguments in favour of scrapping it are depressingly ill-informed. George Osborne claims most payments are a “dead weight” and they go to children who would have stayed in education anyway. But since the introduction of EMA, participation in higher education has gone up by 6%. The Institute for Fiscal Studies argues that the availability of EMA has been a “significant factor” in the rise.
It’s not that every recipient of EMA spends every penny of the allowance on books, bread and water. It’s just that if teenagers are forced to choose between two more years of school, and having basic (and I use this next word hesitantly, because I’m talking about basic modes of communication and travel, not Gucci shoes and a miniature puppy) luxuries, they are, as the IFS has discovered, very likely to choose the latter. And that’s a decision which is not only to the detriment of their own life chances, but also a loss to the country itself. We should, surely, help make that choice just a little bit less grim if we can?
And we can. Or rather, we could, if we wanted to. It’s hardly a matter of not being able to afford the £500million that EMA costs, since the government’s alternative strategy for full participation in higher education is not only more expensive, it’s more expensive to the tune of £774million (the lowest figure quoted; some are much higher. Professor Alison Wolfe, who works for the government though is politically independent, estimates the cost of the funding full participation in education, which is the coalition’s approach to the problem, at around £1.5billion).
But the fact that the coalition’s policy is more expensive than Labour’s isn’t the real irony of the situation. The real irony is this. These new costs (the £774million-£1.5billion) are for centralised government spending, not for money going directly to the families or students themselves. The coalition wants us to believe that they are, above all else, concerned with encouraging personal responsibility, instead of government dependence. In keeping with that very sensible principle, surely it makes more sense to give a little extra to families who want to stay in education longer but can’t afford to, and let them spend it as needs must, rather than spend a lot more money on forcing everyone to stay in education longer, whether they want to not, and – more importantly – whether they can afford to or not?