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Study grants face cuts

Almost two-thirds of teenagers who receive state aid to encourage them to stay in education admit they would have continued their studies whether they were paid or not.

The findings of a sample survey among the 24,000 young people who get Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) in Northern Ireland highlight inefficiencies in the £27m-a-year scheme, government officials told MLAs.

The Department of Employment and Learning's director of higher education Fergus Devitt told members of his departmental scrutiny committee that there was not enough money in the budget to fund the projected £31m-a-year spend on EMA at the end of the four-year budgetary period and savings had to be made.

Teenagers aged between 16 and 19 are eligible, through means testing, for £10, £20 or £30 payments per week, with up to three £100 bonus payments per year for completing stages of their studies. Of the 24,000 who receive the payments, 60% are in school and 40% in further education colleges. The average EMA student receives £1,000 per year.

Mr Devitt said the review, which was carried out by consultants Price Waterhouse Coopers, flagged up areas where efficiencies could be achieved.

He said: “On the basis of the review findings, particularly in relation to the inefficiencies identified and in light of the current budgetary restrictions, it would be difficult to justify simply retaining EMA as it is. Equally, as the results show that the original objectives of EMA remain valid, it would be difficult to justify abolishing the EMA scheme altogether.”

Department of Employment and Learning minister Stephen Farry has signalled his intention to make savings of up to £5m within EMA as part of a cost-cutting drive.

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