The NUS-USI is to be congratulated on its campaign to maintain the EMA (Educational Maintenance Allowance) in some form, and in a form which seems more generous than its equivalent in Wales (it was scrapped three years ago in England).
Nevertheless, I cannot get away from the sense, following on from yesterday’s blog, that this is yet another administratively complex blunt instrument designed to plug a hole which should not be there in the first place. In addition, it is yet another benefit available in Northern Ireland but not in England – whose taxpayers subsidise it and where student fees are nearly three times as high. How long can that type of thing be allowed to continue before the Kingdom becomes utterly Disunited?
Firstly, as noted yesterday, MLAs too quickly become “public spending salesmen” – unsurprisingly when the main groups they come into contact with are lobby groups calling for more spending (unlike in England, these are not countered by think tanks demanding more efficiency). It is easy to support EMA, and very difficult to oppose it. That does not make supporting it right and opposing it wrong, however.
Secondly, studies showed conclusively that two thirds of students in receipt of EMA would have studied anyway without it – entirely defeating the point. There is no reason the hard-pressed taxpayer should be subsidising booze. There was no justification for the previously existing system, and we should perhaps be thankful for any amendment, even if its efficiency remains somewhat doubtful.
Thirdly, we do continue with this obsession (shared by Thatcherites and Blairites, like so many things) about getting people to University, or at least keeping them in further education, on the assumption this is a good thing. This cannot continue to go unchallenged. Of the 4 million people who have never worked in the UK, half are students (and another quarter are full-time carers). Is 2 million a figure we can really afford, when so many of the people who are in work are in employment entirely unrelated to their degree course? Whatever happened to apprenticeships and work experience, even internships?!
Finally, there is the ongoing issue of people in Northern Ireland enjoying benefits which are not enjoyed in England – and yet paid for in subsidy by the people who live there. This is becoming an increasing area of popular disenchantment in England, not least in trying economic times. People who value the UK, for whatever reason, would need to be very careful just how far they push that one. We are the lowest taxed region in the UK – and also the one with the highest public spending per head. We needn’t think the rest of the UK hasn’t noticed.
I have long pointed out that failing to apply water charges merely delays the inevitable, as the infrastructure needs an upgrade and that upgrade will have to be paid for; and in any case, the Treasury is not going to put up with people in England subsidising people in Northern Ireland so they do not have to pay extra for things people in England do pay extra for. I cannot help but think frozen tuition fees and a generous EMA settlement go alongside free prescriptions, rates freezes above 400k and free peak-time free public transport at age 60 in the same category.
It is time we were honest about our finances and about our giveaways. But then, I suppose, since when did honesty get you elected?!