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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Brexit is an opportunity to rethink our economic model

Our industrial strategy must lift communities out of low-wage stagnation, writes the chair of the Prime Minister's policy board. 

With the long term fallout of the great crash of 2008 becoming clearer the issue of "inclusive growth" has never been more urgent.

Eight years after the Great Crash, it is becoming clear that the long term impacts of the crisis profoundly challenges the model of economy - and politics - we have become used to. Asset inflation and technological revolutions are entrenching untold wealth for a small global elite.

This sits alongside falling relative disposable incomes for the many, and increasing difference in the disposable income of different generations. Meanwhile, a cohort of "just-about-managing" citizens are working harder than ever simply to get by, despite falling rates of savings. All of this – along with a persistent structural deficit in pensions, welfare and health budgets - combines to create an urgent need for new economic thinking about a model of growth and 21st century economic citizenship that works better for all people and places in our country.

The main political parties have set out to tackle these challenges and develop policy programmes for them. Theresa May has set out a bold new Conservative agenda of reforms to help those of our fellow citizens who are working hard but struggling to get by: to build an economy that works for everyone, and for the people and places left behind.

But this challenge is also generational, and will need thinkers from all parties - and none - to talk and think together about fresh approaches. This is why this cross-party initiative on inclusive growth is a welcome contribution to the policy debate.

The Prime Minister leads a government committed not just to deliver Brexit, but also to the fresh thinking and fresh solutions to the scale of the domestic challenges we face, which clearly contributed to the scale of the Leave vote last June. As she has said, it's clear that as well as rejecting the EU, voters were rejecting a model of growth that wasn’t working for them.

The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was one of the most dramatic and significant political events in decades – for this country and potentially for Europe. It changes everything: our economic model, our long term economic prospects, the assumptions and mechanisms through which we run most of our government and the diplomatic and economic status of the UK internationally.

Delivering a successful Brexit – one which strengthens our global security, our united kingdom, our economy and popular trust in parliamentary democracy, and a model of political economy that works to these ends, will dominate this political generation.

This is a challenge. But it is also an unprecedented opportunity to reform our model of political economy to tackle the causes of deepening domestic political disillusionment and put our country on the path to long-term recovery. 

Brexit provides us with a unique chance to address two of the most important public policy challenges facing our country.

First, the need to enable and enhance the conditions for creating and developing greater enterprise and innovation across our economy, in order to increase competitiveness and productivity. Second, the need to tackle the growing alienation of so many people and places from the opportunities of globalisation, which has in turn entrenched attitudes towards welfarism. I believe these two challenges are fundamentally linked. 

Without social mobility, and the removal of the barriers holding back national and regional participation enterprise, we will never be able to tackle the structural challenges of productivity, public service modernisation, competitiveness and innovation. 

It's becoming clearer to more and more people that a 21st century "innovation economy" both requires and drives an "opportunity society". You can't have an enterprising economy with low rates of social mobility. And the entrepreneurial spirit of economic aspiration is the fuel that powers the engine of social mobility.

For too long, we have run an economic model based on generating growing tax revenues from an ever smaller global elite, in order to pay for the welfare costs of a workforce increasingly dependent on handouts.

Whitehall has tended to treat social policy quite separately from economic policy. This siloed thinking – the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for "growth" and the Department for Work and Pensions, Department of Health and Department for Education for "public services" - compounds a lack of the kind of integrated policymaking needed to tackle the socio-economic causes of low productivity. The challenges holding back the people and places we need to help do not fall neatly into Whitehall silos. 

Since 1997, successive governments have pursued a model of growth based on a booming service sector, high levels of low-cost migrant labour and housing and asset inflation. At the same time, policymakers tried to put in place framework to support long term industrial renaissance and rebalancing. The EU referendum demonstrated that this model of growth was not working for enough people. 

Our industrial strategy must be as much about lifting communities out of low-skill and low-wage stagnation as it is about driving pockets of new activity. We need Cambridge to continue to grow, but we also need to ensure that communities from Cromer to Carlisle and Caithness, which do not enjoy the benefits of being a global technology cluster, can participate too. That means new measures to spread opportunities more widely. 

The Great Crash and its aftermath - including Brexit - represents a chance for a new generation to think these problems through and tackle them. We all have a part to play. Six years ago, I set up the 2020 Conservatives Group in Parliament, as a forum for a new generation of progressive Conservative MPs, regardless of increasingly old-fashioned labels of "left" or "right", or where they stood on the Europe debate. This is a forum to discuss new ways to tackle the current problems facing our country, beyond the conventional silos of Whitehall. Drawing on previous career experiences outside of Parliament, the group also looks ahead strategically at the potential longer-term social and economic challenges that may confront us in the future.

I believe that technology, and a new zeitgeist for public sector (as well as private sector) enterprise hold the key to resolving the barriers that are currently holding back the development of new opportunities. With new approaches, better infrastructure and skills connecting opportunities with the people and places left behind, better incentives for our great innovators, and new models of mutualised public/private partnerships and ventures, we can build an economy that genuinely works for everyone.

The government has already set about making this happen. Through the industrial strategy, the £23bn package of investment in new infrastructure and innovation announced by the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, we can now be much bolder in developing a 21st century knowledge economy infrastructure that will be the foundation for economic success. 

The success of inclusive growth rests on a number of core foundations - that our economy grows, that social inequality is redressed; that people are given the skills they need to pursue a career in the new economy and that we better spread the opportunities of the global economy hitherto enjoyed by a segment of our workforce to the many. 

This can only be achieved if we recognise the way in which enterprise and opportunity are interdependent. Together, politicians from all parties have a chance to set out a new path for a Global Britain: making our country the world capital of innovation and opportunity. Not trickle-down economics, but "innovation economics" where the private and public sector commit to a programme of supporting each other for mutual benefit.

An economy that works for everyone is an economy in which the country unites around the twin pillars of opportunity and security, which are open to all. A country in which "shared values" are as important as "shareholder value". And in which both are better shared by all. A country once again with that precious alignment of economic and social purpose which is the hallmark of all great civilisations. It's a great prize.

This is an edited version of George Freeman's article for All-Party Parliamentary Group on Inclusive Growth's new "State of the Debate" report, available to download here.The APPG on Inclusive Growth's "State of the Debate" event with the OECD, World Economic Forum, RSA and IPPR is on Tuesday 21st February at 6.30pm at Parliament. See www.inclusivegrowth.co.uk for full details. 

George Freeman is the MP for Mid-Norfolk and the chair of the Prime Minister's Policy Board.