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.

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An unmatched font of knowledge

Edinburgh’s global reputation as a knowledge economy is rooted in the performance and international outlook of its four universities.

As sociologist-turned US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognised when asked how to create a world-class city, a strong academic offering is pivotal to any forward-looking, ambitious city. “Build a university,” he said, “and wait 200 years.” He recognised the long-term return such an investment can deliver; how a renowned academic institution can help attract the world. However, in today’s increasingly globalised higher education sector, world-class universities no longer rely on the world coming to come to them – their outlook is increasingly international.

Boasting four world-class universities, Edinburgh not only attracts and retains students from around the world, but also increasingly exports its own distinctively Scottish brand of academic excellence. In fact, 53.9% of the city’s working age population is educated to degree level.

In the most recent QS World University Rankings, the University of Edinburgh was named as the 21st best university in the world, reflecting its reputation for research and teaching. It’s a fact reflected in the latest UK Research Exercise Framework (REF), conducted in 2014, which judged 96% of its academic departments to be producing world-leading research.

Innovation engine

Measured across the UK, annual Gross Value Added (GVA) by University of Edinburgh start-ups contributes more than £164m to the UK economy. In fact, of 262 companies to emerge from the university since the 1960s, 81% remain active today, employing more than 2,700 staff globally. That performance places the University of Edinburgh ahead of institutions such as MIT in terms of the number of start-ups it generates; an innovation hothouse that underlines why one in four graduates remain in Edinburgh and why blue chip brands such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all have R&D facilities in the city.

One such spin out making its mark is PureLiFi, founded by Professor Harald Haas to commercialise his groundbreaking research on data transmission using the visible light spectrum. With data transfer speeds 10,000 times faster than radio waves, LiFi not only enables bandwidths of 1 Gigabit/sec but is also far more secure.

Edinburgh’s universities play a pivotal role in the local economy. Through its core operations, knowledge transfer activities and world-class research the University generated £4.9bn in GVA and 44,500 jobs globally, when accounting for international alumni.

With £1.4bn earmarked for estate development over the next 10 years, the University of Edinburgh remains the city’s largest property developer. Its extensive programme of investment includes the soon-to-open Higgs Centre for Innovation. A partnership with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the new centre will open next year and will supply business incubation support for potential big data and space technology applications, enabling start-ups to realise the commercial potential of applied research in subjects such as particle physics.

It’s a story of innovation that is mirrored across Edinburgh’s academic landscape. Each university has carved its own areas of academic excellence and research expertise, such as the University of Edinburgh’s renowned School of Informatics, ranked among the world’s elite institutions for Computer Science. 

The future of energy

Research conducted into the economic impact of Heriot-Watt University demonstrated that it generates £278m in annual GVA for the Scottish economy and directly supports more than 6,000 jobs.

Set in 380-acres of picturesque parkland, Heriot-Watt University incorporates the Edinburgh Research Park, the first science park of its kind in the UK and now home to more than 40 companies.

Consistently ranked in the top 25% of UK universities, Heriot-Watt University enjoys an increasingly international reputation underpinned by a strong track record in research. 82% of the institution’s research is considered world-class (REF) – a fact reflected in a record breaking year for the university, attracting £40.6m in research funding in 2015. With an expanding campus in Dubai and last year’s opening of a £35m campus in Malaysia, Heriot-Watt is now among the UK’s top five universities in terms of international presence and numbers of international students.

"In 2015, Heriot-Watt University was ranked 34th overall in the QS ‘Top 50 under 50’ world rankings." 

Its established strengths in industry-related research will be further boosted with the imminent opening of the £20m Lyell Centre. It will become the Scottish headquarters of the British Geological Survey, and research will focus on global issues such as energy supply, environmental impact and climate change. As well as providing laboratory facilities, the new centre will feature a 50,000 litre climate change research aquarium, the UK Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas, and the Shell Centre for Exploration Geoscience.

International appeal

An increasingly global outlook, supported by a bold international strategy, is helping to drive Edinburgh Napier University’s growth. The university now has more than 4,500 students studying its overseas programmes, through partnerships with institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Sri Lanka and India.

Edinburgh Napier has been present in Hong Kong for more than 20 years and its impact grows year-on-year. Already the UK’s largest higher education provider in the territory, more than 1,500 students graduated in 2015 alone.

In terms of world-leading research, Edinburgh Napier continues to make its mark, with the REF judging 54% of its research to be either world-class or internationally excellent in 2014. The assessment singled out particular strengths in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, where it was rated the top UK modern university for research impact. Taking into account research, knowledge exchange, as well as student and staff spending, Edinburgh Napier University generates in excess of £201.9m GVA and supports 2,897 jobs in the city economy.

On the south-east side of Edinburgh, Queen Margaret University is Scotland’s first university to have an on-campus Business Gateway, highlighting the emphasis placed on business creation and innovation.

QMU moved up 49 places overall in the 2014 REF, taking it to 80th place in The Times’ rankings for research excellence in the UK. The Framework scored 58% of Queen Margaret’s research as either world-leading or internationally excellent, especially in relation to Speech and Language Sciences, where the University is ranked 2nd in the UK.

In terms of its international appeal, one in five of Queen Margaret’s students now comes from outside the EU, and it is also expanding its overseas programme offer, which already sees courses delivered in Greece, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

With 820 years of collective academic excellence to export to the world, Edinburgh enjoys a truly privileged position in the evolving story of academic globalisation and the commercialisation of world-class research and innovation. If he were still around today, Senator Moynihan would no doubt agree – a world-class city indeed.

For further information www.investinedinburgh.com