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Funding the extension of EMA in Scotland: new(ish) policy, old politics?

March 30, 2015

The First Minister used the SNP conference last weekend to announce an extension to the Educational Maintenance Allowance scheme in Scotland.   Although there is much talk at the moment of Scottish politicians bringing a breath of fresh air to Westminster, there look to be some pretty traditional politics of the old school going on here.

An earlier post here noted that between 2008-09 and 2012-13, spending on EMA in Scotland fell by £11m in real terms.  The First Minster estimated that an increase in the income threshold and extension to part-time FE students would mean that 22,000 more students would benefit from EMA, compared to 35,000 at present.  Spending on EMA was £28m in 2013-14. Depending whether all the new recipients get EMA at the full rate, that implies a maximum increase in spending of around £17m, so the first thing to note is that much of any new spending will simply be getting the level of investment back to where it was a few years ago – although the total numbers benefitting will be much higher: they previously peaked at 39,000 in 2008-09.  There was no indication of any plan to increase the rate (£30/week), frozen since 2004.

There is no detail yet on the timing of the change, but provision for additional investment in EMA was not included in the 2015-16 budget passed by the Scottish Parliament last month.

This may be a very long range trail for the 2016 SNP manifesto. However, it seems at least as likely that it will be implemented from this autumn and that in that case the announcement will be funded from money which has already been announced (and credit taken) for different purposes.  It’s possible to make a reasonable guess which pot will be raided.

Last autumn the Scottish Funding Council was asked by the Scottish Government

to make firm spending plans now on the basis of £1041 million for HE Resource in financial year 2015/16, on the understanding that this will provide flexibility to develop our plans for Post 16 education and training as a whole.

This was despite the budget documents also published that autumn to inform parliamentary scrutiny of the budget containing a distinctly unambiguous (and inflexible) provision for 2014/15 and 2015/16 of

HE Resource 1,061.6 1,062.5

The letter to the SFC does suggest that money might be made available during the year to replace the £21m lost to HE and perhaps it will.  But  it’s not ideal when publicly-funded bodies find themselves dependent on constantly maintaining ministerial goodwill, in order to have any hope of getting funds which parliament has already agreed they should have.  In its own quiet way, this case calls into question the point of the detailed budget information provided to parliament and the parliamentary scrutiny process.

The instruction not to allocate the whole HE settlement to HE only became widely known in late January – see here.  In response to complaints from the opposition parties:

A Scottish Government spokesman said the SFC allocations were neither new nor unexpected. “As expenditure can vary in the course of the year, we have asked the Funding Council not to allocate their budget for next year in its entirety in the first instance, as was made clear last year. This provides flexibility going forward to align resources where needed across our funding for post-16 education,” he said.

The EMA announcement looks very much like it might be that flexibility.

Even those who welcome an extension to EMA can recognise that the Scottish government statement quoted above was a masterpiece of spin.  The suggestion that it is entirely normal to ask the SFC not to make plans for the whole HE budget, in case some of it is wanted for some other area of post-16 spending, is heroic but to the best of my knowledge has no foundation in past practice.  Indeed, the Scottish Government has previously placed significant emphasis on the cash increase in the HE budget in Scotland from 2014-15 onwards (it was £1041m in 2013-14), in order to highlight that Scotland is the only part of the UK increasing grant to its universities.  No more, it seems.

In particular, the instruction to the SFC recognised (steered?) that the Global Excellence Fund (GEF) was expected to be a casualty of the instruction to keep money back, although the White Paper Scotland’s Future had stated [emphasis added]:

This Government has shown our commitment to university research by increasing investment in research and knowledge exchange activities by 38 per cent since 2007 and supporting global excellence [note: ie the GEF], through investment of £13.8 million in 2013/14 for world-leading research  … This Government plans to ensure that levels of public investment in university research are sufficient to enable our researchers and universities to remain internationally competitive with current levels of government investment in university research (through the Scottish Funding Council and the Research Councils) at least maintained

The Fund had also been specifically mentioned in a separate SG paper on research funding, and when it was first announced, the clear implication was of a long-term initiative, with four year research studentships given as one example of how it would be used in the official news release. Universities Scotland is now looking to the next spending review to deal with concerns about research funding.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that, having done its work in an often high-profile debate about higher education funding over 2013 and 2014, this £21m is now being redeployed to reflect that the political action has moved on, to issues of poverty and inequality.  How long the money stays there before it is needed somewhere else will be the thing to watch.  The SG has form here, and not only with the GEF.  The Independent Student Bursary was first  introduced in 2010, ahead of the 2011 Scottish elections, and ran at its original rate for only three years, before its value was reduced and income thresholds tightened in 2013.

The party currently in charge of the Scottish Government has been keen lately to position itself as a potential champion of new-style politics at Westminster.  However, on this evidence at least, it is likely to bring an attachment to some pretty old-style presentational tricks to the mix.


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