You’ll recall that the UK had an election in early May in which the Conservative Party, contrary to most polling, won a majority of seats, and thus was able to form a government without need for a coalition. On July 8, the new government delivered its first budget, which contained a lot of policies that – to put it mildly – had not exactly been fully outlined to the electorate eight weeks earlier. In student aid, what that meant was the outright abolition of maintenance grants, and their replacement with student loans of slightly higher value.
Rewind a little bit here for some history: before 1992, the UK was a free-tuition, all-grant system. In that year a student loan program was set up because the government felt it couldn’t continue to increase maintenance grants. In 1998, means-tested tuition of up to £1,000 was introduced, and maintenance grants were abolished in favour of an all-loans system. After 2006, when tuition was effectively hiked to £3,000, maintenance grants of up to £2,900 were re-introduced, alongside loans for fees, and maintenance loans of up to (roughly) £4,000 pounds (amounts were indexed). The maintenance loan and grant system remained unchanged when fees were effectively raised to £9,000 in 2012 – that is, unchanged until now.
With means-tested grants being replaced by loans, and those loans being placed on top of the £27,000 (C$54,000) in fees that a three-year degree will bring, there are a lot of lurid headlines (like this one) about how the poorest students are now facing the largest debts – possibly over £52,000 (C$104,000) at the end of their education. That figure is, strictly speaking, accurate – but it doesn’t quite capture the weirdness of what’s going on.
As I explained back here, there’s a certain fantasy element to student loans in England. Repayment occurs in strict income-contingent fashion, with no payments on the first £21,000 (C$42,000) of income, and 9% of any income on top of that. At the end of thirty years, any outstanding balance will be forgiven. This creates some odd incentives: if you expect to pay back your loan at some point, there is a reason to accelerate payment because the loans are (barely) interest-bearing; on the other hand, if you don’t think the minimum payments will end up repaying your loan, there’s absolutely no incentive to try to repay the loan, since it will eventually be forgiven anyway. In essence, for people in the latter group, these aren’t loans, but rather a 9% surtax on income over £21,000, which stays in place for 30 years.
Depending on whose estimates you’re using, it turns out that anywhere from 60 to 80% of present-day students are not expected to repay their loans (the range exists because, frankly, predicting repayment rates 30-years out is a bit tricky, and depends a lot on initial assumptions). As a matter of logic then, if you load more debt onto these people by replacing grants with loans, it simply isn’t going to be repaid – it’s going to wind up as forgiven debt sometime in the late 2040s. True, very poor students who end up among the wealthiest quartile of graduates will end up paying more, but for the most part this is just an accounting trick: the government is lending money to students now with the full intention of forgiving most it (with interest) in thirty years time.
Here’s the central dilemma: under the English loan system, raising student contributions is almost impossible unless you either change the repayment threshold, or you change the repayment rate. The problem is the Tories initially promised they wouldn’t do either of these things, so now they’re “examining” the weasel option of raising real contributions over time by de-indexing the £21,000 threshold. That will bring in more money, but it doesn’t change the reality that, in the main, this is just exchanging grants now, for loan forgiveness later.
A decent accounting scheme or auditor-general wouldn’t allow it.
For those want to know more, here’s the Institute of Fiscal Studies’ take on the budget changes; more reasonably, have a look at the excellent Andrew McGettigan’s summary thereof.