Monday, 6 December 2010

Email to Shane Cowen regarding EMA

I have emailed Shane Cowen of the NUS asking him to correct the factual errors in his briefing paper and acknowledge that EMA is spent on lots of pupils who would be in education otherwise. Here is the email - it's based largely on what I say in this post.

I write to you concerning the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA). The National Union of Students are campaigning against the planned cuts to this allowance and on your website you have a briefing paper that explains why -

This paper contains many factually inaccurate assertions.  Firstly, you criticise the government for cutting EMA on the basis of a survey by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), a survey you claim is methodologically flawed and one whose findings contradict all the other surveys on the subject.

However, all the surveys you cite do in fact completely back up the findings of the NFER survey. The NfER survey claims that 88% of students would still be in further education without EMA; this is consistent with the findings of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the CfBT, Ipsos Mori and RCU (links at bottom) and if anything overstates the impact of EMA.  Whilst you cite some of these surveys, you either draw the wrong conclusion from the survey, or, in one case, factually distort the survey data.

When you cite the CfBT study, you claim that it shows that only 36% of EMA spending is wasted. In fact, it shows that at the very least, 35.7% percentage points of EMA spending is wasted. In this case, the 35.7 percentage points equates to 83% - extremely close to the 88% of the NFER research. This error rests on the failure to appreciate the difference between percentages and percentage points – I am happy to discuss this further if you wish. Not only this, but that analysis depends on accepting your point that EMA has increased participation by 7.3 percentage points.  I assume you got this number from the CfBT, who in turn took it from the IFS. What the IFS actually say is that EMA increased participation by 5.5 percentage points for males and 7.3 percentage points for females, which would suggest that actually the overall figure is somewhere in the middle of those two numbers.  Plus, the IFS analysed the participation rates in two different ways, the other of which gave an improved participation rate of nothing for males and 2 percentage points for females. Were I to take those latter figures, it would suggest that only 0% of males and 5% of females would drop out without EMA.

The RCU survey suggests 6% of students would have dropped out without EMA; the Ipsos Mori one suggests a 13-17% figure. The only survey I can find that suggests more than 17% of pupils would be deterred from further education by the cutting of the EMA is one conducted by your organisation. However, on your website I can only find the results of this survey, not its full data and methodology. Given that you have rejected one piece of research because of its methodology, I think it is only fair that you publish the methodology of your survey so perhaps we can see why it contradicts five powerful independent studies conducted by respected research organisations.

The CfBT paper actually defends EMA, but even it has to completely concede the deadweight issue.  Why then do you persist in denying the fact that a large amount of EMA goes to pupils who would remain in further education without it, when even the academic supporters of EMA concede this point? In your briefing paper, you state that it is ‘astonishingly irresponsible’ for the government to cut EMA on the basis of one survey. I think it is astonishingly irresponsible that you ignore or misrepresent four other surveys on this issue all of which directly contradict your assertions.

You do of course go on to discuss the other benefits of EMA beyond increasing participation, and I disagree with you on those too, but for now I would like to remain on this aspect of the issue. On this one particular and important aspect, you have factually misrepresented the impact of EMA. Can I therefore ask that you:
a)      Correct the factual error in your reporting of the CfBT study
b)      Publish the full data and methodology of your own survey into the impact of cutting EMA
c)       Acknowledge that all the substantial research on this issue finds that the large majority of EMA spending is spent on pupils who would remain in further education without it.

I have published this letter on my weblog. Please let me know if you would be happy for your reply to be featured there too. 

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