Tuition fee increase will hit middle-income graduates

Putting tuition fees up to £7,000 will leave middle-income graduates repaying up to £15,000 more tha

There has been concern expressed that raising tuition fees will deter students from applying to university, but new research suggests that a potential cutback on subsidised interest for student loans is where the real danger lies.

A report from the Social Market Foundation (SMF) has found that the proposed rise in tuition fees will leave middle-income graduates with much larger debts than their higher-paid contemporaries, as the increased fees bill will result in the government being forced to withdraw subsidised interest rates for student loans.

If, as expected, Lord Browne's review of university fees and finances (due for publication on October 11) recommends lifting the cap on tuition fees from its current level at £3,290 to £7,000, the SMF research finds that the rise in fees will cost the government an additional £1.3bn a year under the current arrangement of subsidised interest rates on student loans.

As this is obviously unsustainable, the research predicts that interest rate subsidies and loan write-offs would have to be abolished in favour of commercial rates, which would penalise those middle-income graduates who take longer to pay back the entirety of their loan. The SMF estimates that it could leave some graduates paying back up to £15,000 more than their higher-earning counterparts, even if they originally did the same degree at the same university.

In addition to the students and graduates who look likely to suffer under tuition fee increases, this issue is shaping up to be a major political challenge for the coalition. The publication of Lord Browne's review on October 11 will be the first major test of its unity, for as my colleague Samira Shackle pointed out last week, opposing such an increase in the debt burden on students has long been a central policy for the Lib Dems. Their response to the publication of Lord Browne's review will be a key indicator of how things stand within their party, and quite how long we might expect the coalition to hold up in its current form.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.