EMA welcome for students – but is it sustainable?

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?!


5 thoughts on “EMA welcome for students – but is it sustainable?

  1. Okay? Here’s me thinking Stephen Farry of the Alliance Party had tried to direct it to the low income families might

    Given the relatively low rate of EMA, I would suggest a bigger gamble is the toxification of the student loan company in England and Wales by the middle classes and the skills shortages unfilled by upper class people. Personally the demand for pay your own way graduates by businesses is unsustainable and high risk.

    You just can’t borrow or print out a high skilled graduate these days the way wealth is “earned” by the people in power over there

  2. The middle class of fifty years was created by government graduate wine lakes, it will be destroyed by those who have invested in debt wine lakes instead. In order to gain a little back in interest on these debts, the availability of skills goes from open competition to a complete lottery, leading to higher wages for less work.

    Also there is a Laffer Curve effect on Northern Ireland, low earning middle class cannot afford 9,000 a year tuition fee/tax and so won’t pay it, the closure of Queen’s University will supplement this loss to the taxpayer, but will do nothing to supplement the loss of Queen’s University and possibly UU to the private sector economy.

  3. Interesting piece, but I find a few flaws in your thinking.

    1. We’re getting something that English tax payers aren’t is a bad thing. If they don’t like the fact that they are now paying 3x the amount for Uni that would be a matter for Westminster not Stormont. I think your thinking is also conflating two rather separate matters, funding for devolved Assemblies and what they decide to spend their funds on.

    2. Yes, most students would still go to uni even if EMA did not exist, however, this does not mean that getting rid of it is a good idea. Saddling students with masses of debt is not a good idea either, it merely shifts problems with funding a university education from the public to the private sphere.

    3. The fact that we have so many students now working in roles that don’t require a uni education is not, IMHO, a sign of too many courses or graduates, more a failure of government in tackling the economic crisis.

    • Queen’s Uni is bottom of the Russell group so juxtaposing it with an English university of the same type would be difficult, a fairer comparison might be with universities in Scotland or the Republic of Ireland. Personally I’d prefer a graduate to pay a tax outright because that would give them a sense of ownership of their debt as any other taxpayer pays on services they consume. The debt system is hedged towards favouring graduate unemployment, and actually socialises the unpaid debt away from the ones who benefit from the talent produced rather towards those who do not. If all universities were fully privatised it would be a massive shock what the actual cost of that talent might be.

      In terms of the EMA, we are seeing the issue being lead by Stephen Farry and John O’Dowd towards those in need, in a sence this is a cut from those who do not need it. It provides a fighting chance for those in the lower reaches, in many cases people who have very little can be the least inclined to waste it. I’d be surprised if EMA was not fiscally beneficial to society overall.

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