Axing EMA is not a tough choice – it’s a stupid one

It’s not the tough choices that need to be evaded, it’s the stupid ones - and axing Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) falls right into that category.

So will you get divorced without it? Yes, comes the reply. The marriage assessor scratches her head. There has been a constant procession of couples streaming into her office for days now since the process started. All of them have claimed that they will get divorced without their targeted married tax allowance. The problem is that she can only give the allowance to the expected one in ten cases of marriage threatening hardship. How does she decide?

The scenario seems ridiculous. But this scenario is what the ‘deadweight’ argument amounts to. Replace married tax allowance with Educational Maintenance Allowance and this is precisely the scene that will play out in colleges and schools up and down the country when the more ‘targeted’ system is introduced.

The poll published earlier this week by the University and College Union (UCU) and others demonstrates the point quite nicely. It found that 70 per cent of those who receive the payment say they would not be in education if they didn’t receive it. Now, personally I don’t believe this figure for a minute. What it does demonstrate, however, is what happens if you ask people to forecast their behaviour.

Imagine now that the situation influences whether you receive a payment or not. That 70 per cent would be a conservative estimate of the response you’d get. How does the educational assessor decide which are the worthiest cases? How do they decide which ones would not attend college if they didn’t receive payment? Will they even get to speak to those who decide not to?

So the notion that the new system will be more effectively targeted is pie in the sky. Some argue that teachers know their students and their families so are better able to judge. But that is an extremely school-centric view. It’s not the case in a college where there are, say, 2,500 16-18 year olds

Our marriage assessor centre is palpably ridiculous and intrusive. That is exactly what is being proposed in the educational environment. Most importantly, it is an assessment that is extremely difficult if not impossible to make. That is the logic of the ‘deadweight’ argument on which the substantive case for abolishing EMA is based.

I’ve been over the evidence for retaining EMA in previous posts for Left Foot Forward – here and here; it works. It keeps 16-18 year olds in education, helps them succeed and saves us all cash as those who receive it are much less likely to be unemployed – throughout their life.

Speak to colleges and they will report that success rates amongst those who receive EMA are higher than average success rates in the same institution. Given the by-definition more deprived nature of this group, one can conclude two things of this:

(i) They are more capable/motivated than average and so had a financial obstacle kept them out of the education they merit it would have been a tragedy;

(ii) There may also be something intrinsic to EMA that raises success, eg. preventing the need for part time work.

EMA is a nudge policy in action. It lowers the barriers of entry in the short term so that individual and collective benefits can be unlocked in the medium to long term. It changes the choice architecture so that the early obstacles to the better path are removed. You’d have thought the Conservatives would have loved it

But no, the logic is actually nothing to do with deadweights etc – that’s just the convenient excuse. It’s accompanied by all sorts of anecdotal stuff like this pearl from Nadine Dorries. The more outlandish the propaganda, the more our attention is deflected away from the real motivation.

It’s actually about making short-term financial savings whatever the total cost. This cut goes in the ‘dumb and dumber’ category. In this category are things like the Sheffield Forgemasters loan cut, reducing the number of tax officers to collect tax and investigate tax fraud, and the NHS reforms that prioritise cost-cutting at the likely expense of quality of care.

Yes, the deficit has to be narrowed. Yes, there are tough choices to be made. It’s not the tough choices that need to be evaded. It’s the stupid ones. And this falls right into that category. When the one and only prism through which you view the world is through short term financial savings that’s kind of where you end up. Can we afford EMA? Yes. In fact, it makes sound financial sense to maintain it.

And it just happens to improve educational outcomes for the least advantaged at the same time. That is why it is necessary to save EMA.

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55 Responses to “Axing EMA is not a tough choice – it’s a stupid one”

  1. Doug

    @pontaprint I’m not sure if you read the news or pay much attention to it, but the level of youth unemployment is massive, with over 20% of 18-24Y olds unemployed (the highest level ‘since records began’), the situation today is such that employment isn’t actually an option for many students because there isn’t any.

  2. Andrew Thompson

    RT @DarrenJohnsonAM: Axing EMA is not a tough choice – it’s a stupid one @leftfootforward http://bit.ly/eYMYXZ #saveEMA #demo2011

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