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New Subsidy To Help Poorest Students Is Postcode Lottery, Guardian Survey Finds

New subsidy to help poorest students is postcode lottery, Guardian survey finds

Survey reveals patchy effect of system that replaced EMA on eve of national student boycott and rallies

The Guardian World News |by Jessica Shepherd

Students EMA protest

Students protesting in vain against the abolition of EMA last year. The replacement subsidy to aid the poorest students is not working, says the National Union of Students. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

A state subsidy to help the poorest teenagers afford textbooks and transport to their lessons varies significantly across the country, with deprived young people in some towns receiving hundreds of pounds while others get nothing.

Analysis by the Guardian reveals the subsidy – introduced by the coalition last year – has led to a postcode lottery in what financial help the poorest students can obtain while at college.

Our finding comes as thousands of university students plan to boycott lectures and take part in rallies on Wednesday in protest at the growing cost of studying for a degree. The National Union of Students has co-ordinated a week-long campaign, culminating on Wednesday, to highlight what it says is a rise in the number of young people priced out of higher education because of the near-trebling of tuition fees, hidden course costs and a lack of bursaries.

Most campuses across England are involved. A separate group, made up of students and workers – the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts – is joining the action and calling on David Willetts, the universities minister, to resign.

Our findings show tens of thousands of college students from the poorest homes are also getting a raw deal. One of the first moves of the coalition was to scrap the education maintenance allowance (EMA) – a weekly payment of up to £30 for 16- to 18-year-olds at college whose household income was under £30,800. Labour had introduced the allowance to encourage the poorest teenagers to stay in education. Coalition ministers prompted an outcry when they abolished EMA, saying it had failed to serve its purpose.

Last June, in what critics described as a U-turn, ministers announced a replacement, the 16-19 bursary fund. This scheme, for 16- to 19-year-olds, costs the public purse a third as much as EMA and allows colleges far more say over how much their deprived pupils should receive.

Under the Bursary Fund, teenagers who are – or who have been – in care, those who are disabled and those who receive income support are automatically awarded £1,200 a year. In all other cases, colleges can decide how much a teenager’s family income should be to qualify for financial assistance.

The Guardian asked 12 colleges in different parts of England what the family income of a student needed to be to qualify for assistance under the scheme. The National Union of Students said the findings showed the Bursary Fund was “clearly not working”.

At King Edward VI sixth form College in Stourbridge, West Midlands, a student whose family income is £30,800 a year can receive up to £300 a year for equipment to aid their studies and up to £100 a year for their transport. In addition, the college has a hardship fund which awards up to £100 a year to students in exceptional circumstances. In contrast, at Vision West Notts – a college in Nottinghamshire – a student whose family income is more than £15,276 is not eligible for any funds. However, they are entitled to apply for the college’s hardship fund which could mean half the cost of their course books, equipment and study trips are paid for.

At Wiltshire College, a student whose family income is less than £21,000 would qualify for up to £300 a year in course books and equipment, £60 a month during the autumn term and £50 a month from the January after their course starts onwards. In contrast, at Leeds College of Building, a student whose family income is less than £20,000 would receive a maximum of £215 a year. The college does not have a hardship fund, but adds extra funds to its bursaries throughout the year.

At Derby College, a student whose family income is £16,190 or less and is claiming certain benefits will receive an average of just £200. In some circumstances, the student may receive up to £1,000, the college said. It has no additional hardship fund. The same student would be entitled to up to £900 at King Edward VI sixth form college in Stourbridge.

Toni Pearce, the National Union of Students vice-president (further education) said the new scheme was “clearly” not working. “What we are seeing now is money being shifted from other priorities in order to top-up inadequate support funds and a situation in which eligibility is increasingly determined by postcode rather than need.”

A Department for Education spokesman said colleges should have the discretion to target funding at “those pupils who need it most”because they knew their pupils and areas better than central government.

Derby College’s principal, David Croll, said the amount his students received through the bursary fund had been calculated on how many students had applied for assistance in previous years.

Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said colleges had had “barely two months” to implement the fund and communicate it to students and their families. College principals had received “limited” guidance from the government and the data used to allocate the bursary budget was “not very precise”.

“We’re naturally keen to make sure the money is spent in the best possible way, which is why we will be re-issuing our bursary advice later this month, running a conference on how to administer bursaries and working with the researchers commissioned by the Department for Education to evaluate the scheme,” Gravatt said.

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