GDP grows by 0.3 per cent

The ONS figures show stagnation is still the name of the game.

The preliminary estimate for GDP growth in the first quarter of 2013 has come in at 0.3 per cent. That's higher than the vast majority of economists had predicted, coming in as it does against a consensus estimate of 0.1 per cent.

Clearly, the difference between growth of -0.1 and 0.1 per cent is where the real disconnect is in the political debate. If it were the first, then we would have been in a triple-dip recession. As it is, we aren't, and the chancellor will be able to begin a narrative of our slow return to growth. In fact, coming in at 0.3 per cent may even lead to a temptation to drop the "slow" part of that narrative. We're growing three times faster than the forecasts predicted! Break out the champagne!

And Osborne should allow himself a momentary pat on the back. Beating expecations, even vastly depressed expectations, is always a good thing. But even with today's news, the wider-scale conclusion is the same: Britain's growth is anaemic. In 2012, the economy shrank. In 2011, it grew less than one per cent. In 2013, NIESR predict that it will grow by slightly more than one per cent, and today's figures, annualised, are just 1.2 per cent growth. We won't have annual growth above two per cent until 2015.

That's disastrous on a number of levels. Our economic system is basically built around a paradigm of real economic growth in the two to three per cent range. We can handle short-term deviations from that norm, but the long-term trend must remain the same. Growth much below that isn't growth at all; it's stagnation by another name. On top of that, real GDP growth isn't the only figure we heard today; we also know the growth per capita. And in a country with a rising population like ours, we need to be growing just for that to stand still. With a population growing at around 0.6 per cent a year, that means this quarter's growth only "feels" like 0.15 per cent to any individual.

Lest you think this is just lefty attacks on Osborne, remember: I wrote much the same in February, when it seemed likely there would be a triple dip. The symbolic disconnect between recession and growth is too tempting, and too many people focus on it. The reality is, the British economy is going to be rubbish for years to come. Celebrating because it's marginally less rubbish than it might have been lies somewhere on the line between "blitz spirit" and "idiotic optimism".

Breakdown

So what's going on beneath the surface?

The GDP growth stems entirely from a growth in the service sector; that grew by 0.6 per cent in the last quarter, contributing 0.5 per cent to the overall GDP figure. That was offset by a massive fall in the construction sector, down 2.7 per cent – which knocked 0.2 per cent off the overall figure.

Those numbers show the discrepancy in the importance of the respective sectors; even more obviously, the contraction in the "Agriculture, forestry & fishing" sector, down 3.7 per cent, had no effect on the headline number. We are a service economy, and becoming more of a service economy every quarter.

Apart from that, one other figure jumps out from the release. The "government" sector, which shrunk by 0.9 per cent last quarter, grew by 0.5 per cent this quarter. That means it goes from contributing a 0.2 per cent contraction to the headline figure in Q4 2012 to adding 0.1 per cent to the headline figure this quarter. As the government has quietly put its deficit reduction plan on hold, shrinking PSNB by nominal amounts, it has been able to start spending on infrastructure. We're now seeing that effect.

An earlier version of this post confused quarterly and annual population growth. This has been amended.

GDP and main components. Figure: ONS

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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It's a stab in the dark: the myth of predicting your student loan repayments

Even the company responsible for collecting repayments admits that it can't tell students what they'll be.

In response to renewed calls to overhaul the student finance system, the universities minister Jo Johnson insisted last week that the "current system works". He pointed out that a university degree boosts "lifetime income by between £170,000 and £250,000".

What he failed to mention is that not even the people administering the loan system can tell students what they will be expected to pay back each month, because they can't work out what they'll earn. 

When asked by the New Statesman why it had pulled an online calculator designed to tell students what their repayments would be, the Student Loans Company (SLC) said it wasn't "possible to answer customers' questions about how long it will take to repay their loan or how much they will owe at a point in the future because there is no accurate way of predicting their future earning".

The confusion around student loans stems from the fact that, unlike loans from banks, their repayment is income contingent.

Until May last year, the SLC had a calculator on its website which students and parents could use to predict how much they may have to repay in the future. But after Andrew McGettigan, a higher education journalist, emailed the SLC noting that the calculator did not take into account gender inequality in future salaries, it was swiftly taken down. 

It was in response to queries about this calculator from the New Statesman that the SLC admitted that there was no accurate way to predict future repayments. The organisation added that it was "exploring new and better ways to present information" to its customers. 

This admission appears to undermine Johnson’s “fair and equitable” description of the student finance system. If even SLC can't say what repayments could look like, how do we know? 

Further controversy around student loan repayments is expected when a report is published later this year by the Department for Education on student finance and expenditure. This is expected to highlight the discrepancy between the maintenance loans students receive and rising rent costs. 

There are still a range of unofficial student loan calculators on the internet, but many use overly optimistic projections for future earnings. McGettigan says this is because they are based on salary trends from the 1980s to the 2010s. He also adds that these unofficial calculators are all based on the official one that was removed – and that they also do not take into account the impact of Brexit. It's a stab in the dark.

The SLC notes that "every student who applies for their student finance online must navigate a page of key repayment information that outlines six points". Student loans are inherently complicated by design, but as Amatey Doku, NUS vice president (higher education), makes clear, this has consequences for fair access to higher education. “We know that BME and poorer students are more worried about high levels of debt than any other group, but the current system does not provide adequate support for those about to enter it.”

Students seeking advice from an independent body will be hard-pressed to find one. The independent Student Finance Taskforce set up by the coalition government in 2011, which sought “to reassure potential students about what they can expect when applying for university and beyond”, was quietly discontinued and never replaced. 

Read more: Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

Further confusion surrounds the government’s framing of student finance to sixth formers. Beyond the debate surrounding tuition fees, there is the assumption that has never been made explicit by either political party, which is that students who have a household income of more than £25,000 are expected to have some form of financial support from their families for living costs.

Are parents made aware of this before their children apply to university? Unlike in America, where parents are encouraged to put money away into a “college fund”, the British government never openly encourages parents to save specifically to send their children to university. 

Although there is “no specific date” for its publishing, the Department for Education's report is is believed to argue that, much like the NUS’s debt report did in 2015, that the current system results in poorer students having to take excessive part-time work during the university term. Some also have to take on commercial loans. The stress of both can have an adverse effect on students' mental health.

All this, and not even the organisation responsible for collecting repayments can tell students how much they will be paying back.