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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.