Lots of graduates will never pay off their loans, which is the point

Graduating into a recession is hard; at least you can not pay your loans until you earn a bit.

The Telegraph reported yesterday that "at least 40 per cent of student loans will never be repaid":

Around four in 10 graduates will have their student loans written because they will never earn enough to pay them off, researchers claim.

At least 40 per cent of the cash borrowed by students will never be repaid - a figure far higher than Government estimates have previously suggested.

Ministers had previously believed that around one third of the total students loan bill would be lost as those students fail to make enough money to pay it back.

However, leading university vice-chancellors, who carried out the study for the Institute for Public Policy Research, suggest that the total would in fact be closer to 40 per cent.

This is the second volley I've seen in what looks like a campaign to justify raising the cost of education without raising the actual tuition fees. The first came earlier this month, as the Guardian reported on moves to lower the level at which students would have to start repaying their loans.

Here's what's happening. Tuition fee loans are paid by the Government to the universities; maintenance loans are paid by the Government to the students. The students then pay the loans back, with interest – currently set at RPI plus 3 per cent – until either they have been paying for thirty years, or they have fully paid off the loan. The payments are 8 per cent of income above £21,000, a threshold which was originally planned to rise with inflation, but now looks likely to stay the same in nominal terms, thus increasing the number of graduates having to pay.

A subset of students will, therefore, not fully pay off the loan. This has always been known; the problem is that the initial calculations incorporated the same level of hopeless economic optimism as all the other Government departments (or, to put a more partisan spin on it, the initial calculations did not take into account the fact that the Government's austerity programme would smother the recovery in its cradle). Which means that, rather than a third of students not expected to pay off their loans in full, it is now four in ten – because fewer graduates are employed, and those which are are earning less.

The IPPR report which sparked the Telegraph's piece suggests that one way to deal with the problem is:

The creation of a new generation of cut-price degree courses priced at £5,000-a-year – significantly less than the current £9,000 maximum – for “stay-at-home” students to cut down on the amount of money being loaned by the Government.

The idea is that of students take these courses, then they could be barred from taking out maintenance loans, cutting the overall amount borrowed substantially. Of course, the university would still have to work out how to save £4000 on the teaching of a "stay-at-home" student.

It is clear that the complete mismanagement of the tuition fee increase by this government has left a black hole in the higher education sector's finances. But every suggestion as to how to manage that so far involves putting the burden on students and graduates – and even then, on only the graduates who started university in 2012 or later, who have already paid three times more that the students who immediately preceded them.

In the end, what's happened is that this generation of graduates is experiencing grave misfortune, with the highest levels of youth unemployment since records begin and a prolonged decline in real wages; that misfortune leads to the expectation that record numbers of them will, in essence, default; and much of the response is based around finding ways to extract more money from them anyway.

IPPR's proposal is better than most, in that it is at least looking for ways to save students money; but it still leaves them picking up the tab for the Government's incompetence.

Photograph: Getty Images

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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.