As the cost-of-living crisis in Britain continues to worsen, government attempts at relief for the most vulnerable are falling short. While some have rightly taken to industrial action, others haven’t been able to join the strike wave and have hardly gotten a look in from government support either. Students have felt the squeeze, forcing many to abandon their education; the number of undergraduates dropping out of university jumped almost 25 percent last summer.
Unable to receive benefits and often working low-paid jobs, students find it hard to afford the rising costs of food and shelter. Research published by the country’s National Union of Students found that a quarter have only £50 a month left after paying their regular bills, and 42 percent are surviving off less than £100 a month. Nine out of ten say the crisis has affected their mental health, too.
In fact, university students have witnessed the biggest ever dip in their living standards. In November, the Institute for Fiscal Studies announced that compared with what they would have been entitled to in 2020–21, maintenance loans for university students from the poorest families had shrunk by more than £1,000 over the last year due to inflation — and that all students would be financially better off working a full-time minimum wage job.
Students in further education (FE) — in most cases, colleges after high school and before university — have it worse. The minimum wage for under-eighteens is £4.81/hour, just half that of their colleagues aged over twenty-three, and they receive no maintenance loans like their peers in higher education do. Instead, they rely heavily on their families’ support, which is getting harder to provide as inflation hits the poorest the hardest. Other students are estranged, carers, or struggle at home and can’t rely on the adults in their life to provide for them. Financial pressures cause many FE students to drop out and instead take up low-waged work to support themselves or their families. Hartlepool College’s welfare officer Ronnie Bage told FE Week, “I have clothed somebody this week. Every week I clothe somebody. Sometimes I pay out of my own pocket.”
Enter Lutfur Rahman, mayor of Tower Hamlets, a borough in East London that is home to over three hundred thousand people. In a historic victory last May, Rahman led a group of independent councilors in an election that saw them win the mayoralty and a majority on the council from the right-wing-controlled Labour Party. After his win, Rahman wrote in Jacobin of his admiration for the Poplar Rates Rebellion of the 1920s, in which councilors refused to inflict austerity on their residents.
Today, his administration has insisted that austerity is a political choice, not a necessity — and chosen to invest money into the borough instead. It has so far implemented a host of reforms, including reintroducing the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), which became available for students on New Year’s Day. Before he was elected mayor last May, Rahman made it clear that reinstating the EMA, alongside another bursary scheme for university students, was among his biggest priorities.
“Our residents are in an incredibly difficult situation. With the cost-of-living crisis following off the back of the pandemic, people need all the support we can give them. This is worse still for our young residents, 40 percent of whom live in poverty while their parents work tirelessly to secure their futures. The EMA and University Bursary schemes are two of the best tools we have available to aid them,” Rahman told me.
The EMA was first launched in 2004 by Tony Blair’s government for students from poorer households. It supported almost one in three sixteen- to nineteen-year-olds with means-tested payments of £10, £20, or £30 a week paid directly to those in post-sixteen education. Payments were aimed at supporting students with food, travel, and equipment costs so that they would stay in education. It wasn’t perfect, but it did well to ease inequalities. For students who were eligible, the EMA significantly increased the chances of them staying in post-sixteen education instead of dropping out to support their families.
In 2010 it was announced that the EMA would be scrapped in England as part of the coalition government’s attacks on education, although the devolved parliaments opted to keep the scheme. At the time it was ditched, 647,000 students received the payment in England. In some places like Birmingham and Leicester, as many as four in five students received the EMA. At the same time, during his first stint as Tower Hamlets mayor, Rahman kept the EMA going for the next four years.
For many it was a lifeline. Most remember the 2010 student protests as the work of university students. After all, the tripling of university tuition fees by David Cameron’s government symbolized the austerity era, especially as the other party of government — Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats —had earlier promised to oppose this move. But secondary schoolers also turned out in their thousands at demonstrations, letting the government know that they didn’t want the EMA to end.
Reinstating the EMA
Tower Hamlets council has committed £1.1 million a year to fund both the EMA for FE students, and a University Bursary Award for students from the borough traveling to university. The EMA’s return on January 1 made Tower Hamlets the only council in England to still offer the EMA. So, as the cost-of-living crisis deepens and students feel under pressure, could this East London council be setting an example for others?
Reinstating the EMA was, in fact, one of the pledges of Labour’s 2017 manifesto, and in October, a party-commissioned review chaired by former education secretary David Blunkett recommended that Labour bring back the EMA. A Student Cost of Living Campaign has been launched since then, and the first of its five demands centers around finance. Among other things, it is demanding an immediate cash payment to students and the restoration of the EMA. With students struggling, there’s clearly a need for more schemes like this.
So, why isn’t it happening? Councilor Nabeela Mowlana, elected last year to Sheffield City Council, is chair of Young Labour. A proud socialist, she agrees that the allowances are important: “EMAs can go a long way in supporting working-class students access opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have available to them. In some cases, it helps students get to campus and they’d struggle to be there without it,” she says.
But after more than a decade of austerity, some councils are trying to help — with the government holding one arm behind its back. Some, like the council in Sheffield, haven’t received a penny from the government’s so-called leveling up fund, meant to help out less wealthy parts of the country. Mowlana explains:
Councils have seen a cut to their funding but an increase in the number of residents relying on our services. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the argument for EMA, but with significantly lower resources it’s becoming harder for local councils to patch the gaps left by national government. Under the Tories, Sheffield council alone has seen a 50 percent cut to its budget in real terms.
The government should be supporting councils to invest in younger residents and secure their futures instead of letting inequalities deepen.
However, under a Conservative government, Mowlana doesn’t see the EMA returning on a large scale. She adds, however, that there are other things councils can do for students — too often seen as an undeserving group separate from “society”:
Students are renters, workers, and local residents just like everyone else. The state of student housing affects other housing conditions in the city for example. . . . Councils with large student populations have an opportunity to work with students and establish initiatives such as landlord licensing, better public transport systems and so much more.
Many councils who are keen to reintroduce the EMA simply don’t have the money. For Rahman however, the money is there. He insists that there’s no point penny-pinching when his residents are in desperate need of help — especially if in the long term, investing in residents will save the council money. “What we are trying to do, in these particularly fraught times, is create a council that works for people. To improve the lives of our residents, not simply fulfil the duties required of us. We are determined to deliver a better Borough,” he says.
Young people across the country are in a dire situation — and know they have been hung out to dry by the major parties, including the Labour leader elected in 2020. At a vigil in London for the murdered trans teenager Brianna Ghey, young people could be heard chanting “f*ck Keir Starmer.” Sometimes positive change doesn’t require reinventing the wheel — but today’s Labour party has moved so far to the right that it baulks just at reintroducing Blair-era measures. Faced with a historic cost-of-living crisis, Starmer’s Labour seems scared even of moderate reforms.