Hinting at a drastic overhaul of Labour policy on paying for higher education, Jeff Rooker told academics at a Lancaster University seminar: 'In effect, public funding is totally wasted on well-off families who do not need it and is denied to those who do. This inequity, brought about by a Government trying to provide education on the cheap, is almost sinful.'
His assault on some of the most cherished British assumptions about taxpayer support for students is particularly acute, coming at a time when vice- chancellors are contemplating support for a graduate tax, the London School of Economics is considering charging tuition fees, and the Treasury is looking at ways of cutting public spending on education.
Mr Rooker challenged 'the so-called right of the well-off to have the mechanics of their children leaving home subsidised by the taxpayer, in a way that is not available to other people such as apprentices moving to the next town, or further education students who might like to leave home but cannot afford to'.
The implication is that better- off parents should either pay more towards their children's living costs at university, or that student support should be designed to encourage more students to stay at home and study at a more local university.
Mr Rooker contrasted the large sums spent on supporting university students with the fact that more than a million students at further education colleges receive no grant and pay tuition and exam fees, neither of which have to be paid by university students. Yet, Mr Rooker argued, Britain may have a greater need for the technicians trained in further education colleges than the enormously increased number of university graduates.
Neither the 90,000 Open University students, nor those older students who study part-time, were eligible for the kind of support paid to A-level leavers, he said. The support system was designed for 18-year-old, first-year university students even though they now represent a minority of British higher education students. 'Assumptions about eligibility and access to funding belong to a bygone age,' Mr Rooker argued.
He accepted that one in four students receives no maintenance grant because the means- tested system requires their parents to pay the full amount. But even those students were eligible for subsidised student loans, regardless of their need. 'There is nothing to stop students from the wealthiest families taking up the student loan at the inflation rate of 3 per cent and placing it on deposit at 6 per cent.'