Scrapping of EMA grant 'slowing college enrolments'
Enrolments for colleges in England have slowed in the wake of the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance, principals say.
Lower enrolments are reported in some areas and principals blame the axing of the EMA grant aimed at poorer pupils, and confusion about its replacement.
The Association of Colleges is doing a "super survey" of its 352 members to discover the scale of the problem.
The government said it had no data to suggest a downturn.
AOC policy director Joy Mercer said: "Enrolment seems to be slower this year than in previous years and enrolments in colleges are being kept open for longer than usual."
But she added that it was not clear whether enrolments were down overall and this was why the survey was being held.
"We are getting colleges that are full to bursting and others who say they are noticing a decrease," she added.
If the survey finds that college enrolments are down it will be a blow to the government which faced criticism and protests over its decision to scrap the EMA scheme.
It argued that the scheme, which paid up to £30 a week to poorer 16 to 19-year-old students, did not have a significant impact on students' decision about whether to stay in education.
Ms Mercer said colleges were seeing "considerable fluidity" in the numbers of sixth-form enrolments, and a great deal of confusion about the government's new £180m bursary scheme, which replaces the EMA this academic year.
She said details about who could be entitled were published very late in the academic year and that overall it was a more complicated scheme because much of it was at the discretion of colleges.
Ms Mercer said: "The information on the bursary scheme went out in June and most students would have finished mid-June or even in May. There was a gap in communication."
She added: "In some areas, particularly in the South East, students are feeling that their families need their young people to go into work, whereas when there was the cushion of the EMA that was not the case."
Her experience was echoed by deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, Malcolm Trobe. He said: "College halls are feeling a bit empty at enrolment this year."
Many students were not sure whether they would qualify for the new discretionary award under the bursary scheme, he said.
"There is also a concern that some young people are opting out of education altogether and looking for work at age 16 (even though there are few jobs around) because they see little prospect of being able to afford to go to university because of the high fees and ending up with a huge student debt.
"However, several principals believe that there will be a surge in late enrolments once potential students realise the job market is very difficult."
A Department for Education spokesman said: "Participation at ages 16 to 18 has been rising for a number of years. We have no data to suggest any change to this overall positive trend."
He added that record numbers of 16 and 17-year-olds were already in education or training and this would increase further with over 1.5m places available from September.
"There has been a massive increase in apprenticeships for anyone over 16 to learn a specific trade - 360,000 places in all available in over 200 careers.
"And we are strengthening vocational education so young people will have high quality courses open to them which are valued by employers," he added.
When the government scrapped the EMA scheme, it argued that research had shown the payments had little impact on young people's decisions to stay in college or school.
The new scheme, which begins this year, is divided in two parts with a bursary worth £1,200 a year for care-leavers or those on certain benefits, and a discretionary fund handed out by schools and colleges to those in need.