New figures on the numbers of students enrolling for further education reveal some worrying aspects in the access to education for poorer and BME communities.
Following the controversy over the withdrawal of Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), the The Association of Colleges commissioned a survey of colleges to ascertain whether enrolment was affected in any way. Of the 347 colleges in England, 182 (53 per cent) responded. A complex picture emerges from the survey and some findings are significant.
Half of the colleges saw a drop in students aged 16-19, with forty-six colleges reporting a fall of between 5 to 15 per cent. Those reporting a decline say that the end of EMAs for students in the first year course, competition from other providers, lack of affordable transport and cuts in funding per student were the main factors. A decline in enrolment for Level 1 courses (pre-GCSE and basic skills) was reported by 41 per cent of the respondents.
The true extent of the impact of withdrawal of EMAs is masked because half of all colleges are topping up the reduced government bursary funding from their own budgets and are spending more on subsiding transport for students.
Fiona McMillan, president of the Association of Colleges and principal of Bridgwater College, says that it is particularly the poorest students, with the lowest skill levels, who are not enrolling. According to her, these youngsters are the most vulnerable to loss of financial support with practical barriers, such as the cost of bus fares, being enough to deter applicants.
The Department for Education has criticised the survey for not being robust enough with only half of colleges responding and with the majority showing numbers were steady and over a quarter of colleges reported a rise of between 5 and 10 per cent. It has also defended the more closely targeted £180 million bursary scheme, which replaces the EMA, which will cost £560 million per year.
Although the survey was regional, there needs to be comparison between deprived and prosperous areas. According to the Save EMA campaign, the borough comparisons are stark. In Greater London, five deprived boroughs (Lambeth, Enfield, Haringey, Waltham Forest and Hackney) had 19,541 EMA recipients while more prosperous areas (Richmond-upon-Thames, Chelsea and Kensington) had only 900 recipients. Hence, unless surveys examine enrolment by boroughs with a view to comparing how students across class, race and gender are affected, overall figures either regional or national will not capture the real impact. More research is required along these lines to understand the impact of government policy and funding changes on access to education beyond 16.