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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.

Photomontage: Getty Images/Alex Hern

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.