Rooker hints at change of policy on student grants

STUDENT support and higher education funding has turned into a system 'without logic, reason or equity', which offers a huge subsidy to well-off people, Labour's higher education spokesman said yesterday.

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.'

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<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
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<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
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I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
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