The National Union of Students (NUS) is supporting the Conservative Party’s calls for an inquiry into outstanding grant payments for over 110,000 students across the country. The NUS is intent on investigating the conduct of private US-based firm Liberata, who administer the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA).
Beth Walker, the vice president of the NUS, said they are “fully behind these calls for an inquiry into the EMA shambles.” “More than 110,000 young people are still waiting for a decision on their applications, over a month after the start of the academic year. This money very often makes the difference between participating in education and being forced to drop out and enter low-paid work.”

Trevor Fellowes, director of learner support at the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), said that the problems are being attributed to the failure of a new software system, leaving hundreds of thousands of applications needing to be sorted manually.

Liberata, who drew up a contract with the LSC in July 2007, had to haul in 400 extra employees to sort out the backlog. Liberata has already been fined £3 million, which the NUS has demanded be used to support those affected. Walker added: “It must also write to all students, apologising for the situation.”

Students aged between 16 and 18 who stay in full-time education are eligible for the EMA grants if they come from low-income families, allowing them a weekly payment of £30.

The mishandling of applications was recognized in August, and the forecast of students not receiving their payments on time has proven accurate. The Department for Children, Schools and Families warned last month that the grants still may not be issued by Christmas.

The crisis comes only a short time after the much-publicised muddle regarding this year’s SATs results, where technical faults in the marking system left thousands of young pupils in the country with no test scores. In an attack on the Labour government by the Tories, shadow schools secretary Michael Gove declared: “Just weeks after the SATs fiasco, we have another project overseen by Ed Balls’ department mired in chaos.” David Collins, president of the Association of Colleges, says that the grants shambles
is worse than the SATs scandal. “The SATs do not affect careers or staying on in college”, he said.

Lee Vernon USSU Finance Officer, agrees with the NUS, adding that “many students rely on [the EMA] to pay for food and transport. Many may have to cut back their education.”

However, this is disputed by the government, who call the grants “incentives”, and said that the consequences of the delay in payment are not as serious as some make out.

The calls for the inquiry were initiated soon after a poll, carried out by independent education foundation Edge, revealed that parents with children in full-time education are more likely to trust the Tories as opposed to Labour when it comes to education.

This is a reverse of last year’s results which showed that 35% of such parents trusted Labour’s education
policies, a figure which has now dwindled to only 26% in contrast to the Tories’ 36%. Gove says: “It is immensely encouraging that parents support the changes we want to make to education. Our proposals will put more power into their hands and will drive up standards, especially for children from the poorest backgrounds.”

In regards to Liberata’s future, Walker said: “Over the course of its six year contract, Liberata will be paid £80m to administer EMAs – in this context, the £3m fine it has so far received does not come close to addressing its ineptness and mismanagement, nor the risks to which it has exposed students across the country.”

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