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.

Photograph: Getty Images

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.