Lara is a second-year HSPS student at Girton College and the current Campaigns and Constituency Liason officer for Michaelmas term!
I never benefited from the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) but I can only imagine how vital this was to support students to maintain their drive and focus on their studies with a bit more support from the Government. The payments of up to £30 a week, scrapped in England in 2010, were given out to students from low-income households in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if they stayed on at school or college.
Now, we would go too far if we claimed that EMA revolutionised young people’s lives and removed all their financial worries but when you are struggling to make ends meet, £30 goes a long way to help you feel confident that lunch money is one less thing that you have to worry about.
Six years after EMA was cut, its clear and tangible benefits were still not forgotten by my A-Level teachers who too often acted like social workers to their disadvantaged students. Every welfare, policy and ideology lesson would offer ground for teachers to reminisce about the much better days of education funding and for struggling students to desire something they knew they would never get.
I know I don’t necessarily come from the best school in the country, (something that is made just a bit more obvious at Cambridge) but I also don’t come from the worst. Between classes, however, my friends and I didn’t focus so much on the topics we were studying. Among other things, including the latest Kardashian news, gossipping about our mean bosses or how ridiculously tired we were after working in the evenings and weekends topped corridor conversations by far.
While I am incredibly proud of our effort and how much we have achieved, our time as students should never have been that difficult. I was told on so many occasions that I was an example for students who ‘have it too easy’ and that I should wear my hard work as a badge of honour and that was a sign of my dedication to my academic life above all. On very rare occasions did I meet someone (rational enough) to say: “I am really sorry you had to go through that just to get an education”. Working part time to pay rent and eat is not a fun choice for so many students. It is just what they need to do.
I don’t believe that students, who are already putting so much of their brain power into getting good grades, should be expected to enjoy their financial difficulties so they can prove their passion for their subject. This idea of meritocracy just doesn’t add up and it is not a surprise to me why more than 48,000 16-18 students did not complete their studies in 2016-17.
That is why I support recent calls by the Labour Party to reinstate EMA. Retention rates for students from disadvantaged backgrounds are only 86.49 per cent compared with 92.63 per cent for non-disadvantaged youngsters. Scrapping EMA came as a surprise to many students in 2010 after Government Ministers promised to maintain the scheme. In addition, the Tories’ claims of support for social mobility do not hold up when you force students out of education to support themselves and their families from such a young age.
While support is cut further back, the cost of living, as we all know, follows a completely different trajectory. In many rural areas, for example, travel can be a real barrier to participation in education and training. Without that extra support, parents and students can really struggle and will undoubtedly start to question the logic of an education system that incurs further debts to the family’s finances.
Making it into University is no solution either. Expensive living costs, cuts to maintenance grants and ridiculously low bursary support continue to push back those who can almost see the finishing line but end up falling down at just another obstacle.
It is no news that support for students at whatever stage of education is crumbling. The system as a whole, including our benefit system (I was told by the my local council that I could only get support during my studies if I either studied part time - although that would mean I would be able to work longer hours and therefore not need support - or if I worked full time - which again would mean I would not need support) needs a complete overhaul.
Reinstating the EMA might just be the first step towards an education system that allows students to meet their own expectations.