The claim

“After the Tory-led government’s abolition of EMA I am committed to restoring a London-wide Educational Maintenance Allowance of up to £30 per week in term by bringing together existing funds in colleges, universities, and local authorities.”

Ken Livingstone, pledge to save the EMA, 1 March 2012

The analysis

The controversial scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) in George Osborne’s Spending Review sparked widespread protest among students last year.

The government said the EMA, which paid between £10 and £30 a week to 650,000 students, was “poorly targeted” – pointing to the Labour government’s own research which found that 90 per cent of those on EMA would have attended school regardless.

In its last year, the EMA cost the taxpayer £564m. It was replaced last March with a new £180m bursary fund to help the poorest 16-year-olds stay in education – it’s divided in two: some £20m is guaranteed for the poorest students and the rest is for the colleges to distribute as they see fit.

Ken Livingstone however argues that the new scheme has done little to ease the plight of thousands of students he has met across the capital.

But how hard have London’s students been hit by the removal of the EMA? Should he bring it back – could he bring it back? FactCheck gets out its red pen.

How does Ken plan to bring back the EMA?

The money for the EMA used to be distributed to students by central government, but the funds for the new bursary scheme are distributed by schools and colleges. This costs more than having a single body in charge.

Mr Livingstone said he would pool the burden of the administration costs into a new ‘EMA agency’. He explained: “This will be done by bringing together existing funds in colleges, universities, and local authorities, and working with the Association of Colleges, London Higher and councils across London to deliver this.”

Would he have the power to do that?

Mr Livingstone can’t force these institutions to hand over their money. The Department for Education (DfE) told FactCheck: “The London Mayor has no power over their budgets and could not compel them to do so”.

In other words, he’d have to convince them it was a good idea. But even if they did agree, the DfE told us that they still wouldn’t be able to divert the money targeting the most vulnerable students who are guaranteed the £1,200 bursary (which accounts for around 10 per cent of the bursary scheme).

Would institutions agree?

A spokesman for Mr Livingstone told FactCheck the Mayoral candidate had visited 25 colleges this year and had received support for the pledge “in principle”. Though he admitted “absolutely there will be people who don’t want to do it”.

The Association of Colleges (AoC), which represents 304 colleges including 50 in London, said it would need to see more detail but would certainly be interested in a discussion about a scheme for London. It is concerned about the impact the removal of the EMA has had on London’s students.

Julian Gravatt, AoC’s assistant chief executive, “The bursary scheme was done in such a hurry that they haven’t had time to explore a shared service.”

But where will the extra money come from?

There’s a big difference between the money spent on the EMA and the new bursary scheme. London’s students accounted for just over 15 per cent of all EMA recipients, taking around £86m from the EMA’s total budget.

The new bursary scheme that has replaced the EMA allocates around £31m to London’s students.

So where will Mr Livingstone find the extra £55m? His team outlined three sources of money:

1. Pooling admin costs

Firstly, Mr Livingstone’s team has identified the savings potential of a new ‘EMA agency’.

It’s difficult to know how much it costs colleges, but the EMA used to cost £36m to administrate nationally, so – crudely – if 15 per cent of EMA recipients were London-based, you might assume that EMA admin cost London’s institutions £5.5m.

2. Local councils

Another one of Mr Livingstone’s central pledges is the Fare Deal on public transport for London. FactCheck has previously had reservations as to whether this can be achieved.  However, if he does carry out a fare freeze, he expects local councils to save £22m on the Freedom Pass alone, which they could choose to put into a replacement EMA scheme.

Whether local residents would support this, or councils would agree to it, we don’t know.

Mr Livingstone might be able to garner Labour councils’ support, but what of the Tories? Certainly Ravi Govindia, leader of the Conservative Wandsworth Council, wasn’t impressed last night. He told the BBC: “He’s written a cheque on our bank account without even asking our permission”.

3. Universities’ outreach money

More than 40 publicly funded universities and colleges, which make up the group known as London Higher, have a vast budget for bursaries and “outreach” projects. This is money that the Office for Fair Access requires them to spend on widening participation at their institutions.

It’s around £100m, of which £40m is spent on outreach events – such as summer schools to encourage sixth formers to go into higher education – and the remainder, around £60m, is spent on bursaries for potential students.

Could they be convinced to spend it on a replacement EMA for sixth formers? Graham Atherton, head of Access Higher Education at London Higher, told FactCheck: “It’s not unfeasible but it would take a large degree of negotiation and collaboration. The universities have quite an individual approach and are keen to find innovative ways to support students.”

He said it was unlikely that they would put a lump sum into a new EMA pot. “It would more likely be the case that universities would wish to develop a particular relationship with a college which would support particular leavers. It would be quite strategic,” he added.

The verdict

Mr Livingstone does not have the power to automatically bring the EMA back to life. That said, it’s not impossible.

He’d need to convince local colleges to pool their resources in order to make savings on the administration costs. Yet his team admit themselves that not all would be keen to do this. What’s more, it seems that pooling resources would save just a tiny fraction of the £55m needed to plug the gap between the old scheme and the new.

It is also unclear if Mr Livingstone’s other two cash routes could prove fruitful. The Mayoral candidate says councils could pledge money that is saved from tube fare cuts – but this is a pledge on the EMA based on another pledge – the ‘Fare Deal’ – which hasn’t happened yet.

As for the universities, they might spend money on 16 to 19-year-olds who show promise of moving on to Higher Education; but what of those just wanting to get their A-levels, or go back to college to re-sit their GCSEs?

These are the teenagers who have been hit the hardest by the loss the EMA in London, according to the Association of Colleges. In Greater London enrolments are down 3.5 per cent overall, but the AoC told us that they were most worried about the ‘entry level or level 1’ students. These are people mainly re-sitting GCSEs or wanting to get basic skills.

London Higher told us that getting universities to help bring back the EMA for all students would take some serious negotiations.

Mr Livingstone’s pledge has reopened the debate, and for that, he has the support “in principle” of many. Can he make it happen? At the moment his aspirations rest on a great deal of persuasion and very little certainty.

By Emma Thelwell

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