Why you should care about the student loan fire-sale, even if you aren't a student

Danny Alexander is out to get the worst return for your investment he can.

The announcement that the student loan portfolio is going to privatised has, rightly, sparked a huge response. It is a terrible idea, which will come back to haunt future governments and current graduates.

But the worst of it isn't the effects on graduates themselves – at least, not the direct ones.

The sale of the loan portfolio doesn't mean an immediate move to a US-style system of student debt. As far as we can tell (the proposals will need to be much more fleshed out between now and 2015, when the sale is planned to happen), the debt collection will continue to happen through HMRC, and at the same rates and with mostly the same rules as now. That means it will still be wiped out when a graduate gets old enough, it will still be paid back at 8 per cent of earnings above a certain threshold, and it will still not really count as debt you should be afraid of.

But there are two key problems which graduates might face as a result of the sale.

The first is the much-feared "sweetener", a change which the government might make to the student loan deal to make it a better proposition for commercial investors. As suggested in the secret Project Hero report, uncovered by the Guardian earlier this month, one possible sweetener is to remove the cap on interest rates, thus massively increasing the potential amount graduates would have to repay. The Project Hero suggestions are that this should be retroactive, affecting every graduate with outstanding debt.

Hopefully, that plan won't be put into action. Vince Cable, the business secretary, says the suggestions has been "ruled out categorically". A promise like that doesn't carry much weight from a Liberal Democrat, sadly, but maybe this time it's one they'll actually keep.

The reason to doubt them is the second thing that graduates should be wary of: commercial pressure.

The student loan contracts are mutable enough that nearly any change can be made to them. And once they have been sold, there will be a private company with a multi-billion pound investment in maximising their return from them. Any model of government power will tell you that a policy which has concentrated benefits and dispersed costs is one which gets heavily lobbied for, and this will no different. Expect lobbying for the debt to become a lot more like it is in the US: real rates of interest, and rules which make it impossible to default on, or not pay back, student loans.

When the sale happens, in other words, the fight isn't over. It's only just begun.

And even if the private lenders who buy the debt don't act on it, there's something else to consider: it removes a key commonality of interest between the Government and graduates.

While the government owns student debt, it is in its financial interest to ensure that graduates do well. If it leaves the younger generation to languish in unemployment, it won't get its investment back. That's no longer true.

But for all the risk to students, the bigger reason why the sale of student debt is stupid is because it's bad for the country.

It is, in essence, borrowing. The government is giving up income in the future to gain a lump sum now. And that's fine! It's the sort of thing which it should have done three years ago, not two years in the future, but whatever: it's nice to see that they're finally, grudgingly, painfully slowly accepting that the foundations of their entire economic structure are riddled with holes.

Except they're not. Because in a desperate effort to make it look like they aren't completely chucking out every belief they pretended to have, the Government isn't actually going to borrow the money. Which means that rather than taking advantage of what were, until last month, some the lowest bond yields Britain had ever seen, and what remains an astonishingly low cost of borrowing… we aren't. Instead, our government is twisting itself in contortions, discussing student loan debt as though it's a pile of newspapers sat at the back of the treasury, which they mustn't be "compulsive hoarders" of, in order to sell at a discount an asset which is significantly more valuable in public hands than private. It's politically driven economic illiteracy.

And so to encourage the purchase, to eke some cash out of this shoddy deal, the government is likely to implement a "synthetic hedge". Basically, it lets them sell the student loan debt as though they'd implemented the changes to repayment rules, without actually doing it. They promise to pay the purchaser a sum equivalent to what they'd be getting if the rules had been changed, and then kick the question of how to actually pay that sum to a future government. It's cowardice dressed up as a business plan, and it's coming here in 2015.

Photomontage: Getty Images/Alex Hern

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

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left