Student loans in Britain are basically taxes – and universities want to raise them

Pulling the rug out from under students.

The Guardian's Anna Fazackerley reports that there is a growing push on the part of university vice-chancellors to increase the speed with which students pay back their loans. She writes:

Backing them up is Nicholas Barr, professor of public economics at the London School of Economics and one of the leading experts on student loans. This, he argues, is a no-brainer. At present, graduates have to start repaying their loans when they earn £21,000 or more, but Barr is adamant that this should drop to £18,000.

"The problem with the current arrangement is that the repayment threshold is so high that far too many graduates do not repay the loan in full," he says. "Of course, the National Union of Students and some posturing politicians would say lowering it to £18,000 was hitting graduates, but let's get this in proportion. It would only add £22.50 a month to repayments."

He adds: "The purpose of student loans isn't to help the poor – there are much better ways of doing that. Politicians claiming that they have changed loan repayments to help poor people are just playing political games, or showing total economic illiteracy."

The problem with hurling around accusations of economic illiteracy is that Barr is using some sleight-of-hand himself.

The tuition fee system is, from the point of view of the student, an odd beast (it's almost as odd from the point of view of the university, but that's not the end under discussion here). Although it's sold as a "loan", it actually bears very few similarities with any other borrowing a graduate might do throughout the course of their lives, for one major reason: the loan gets wiped out.

Current graduates stop paying 30 years after they become eligible to repay; the lucky ones who took out loans between 2006/7 and 2012/13 stop paying even earlier. That, combined with the fact that the new loans charge interest rates 3 per cent above inflation – currently an eye-watering 6.6 per cent – means that a sizeable proportion of graduates will never pay off their loans. If you earn the UK average wage, of £26,500, from the year you graduate (and then get pay rises exactly in line with inflation), you will never pay it off. In fact, a few back-of-the-envelope scribbles show you need to earn almost £30,000 a year before you even start paying it down quicker than the interest increases it. And you'd need a wage of over £36,000 before you actually pay it off in the 30 year time limit.

Of course, most people's lives involve them earning more the older they get, so the rough calculations don't bear all that much relation to the real world. But it's enough to point out one thing: lowering the threshold at which people start "repaying" their loans doesn't mean they pay it off earlier; it means they pay more. That graduate on £26,500 for life would pay off a little under £15,000 of their £27,000 loan if the threshold was at £21,000, but they'd pay off almost £23,000 over the following 30 years if the threshold was dropped back down to £18,000.

All of which is to say that for a vast number of graduates, the "student loan repayment" is a tax, plain and simple. And that's OK (sort of): if you're going to make people pay for education, doing it through a tax isn't much different to doing it through a warped state-backed loan. But it does mean that mucking around with the thresholds like this isn't "hastening repayment", it's a tax increase on graduates.

The idea of a "generational conflict" comes up relatively frequently around conflicts like this, and one reason why the young are often on the losing side is that older Brits have the language of expectations and promises on their side; so it's "fair" to cut benefits in a way pensions never would be, because the elderly were promised those pensions.

But this is one where the promises were made to the young. When today's students went to university, they were promised that they would pay back their loans with income over £21,000, and that that would be uprated with inflation. Breaking that promise to deal with the fact that the government didn't cost its higher education plans properly would be disastrous.

How are vice-chancellors dealing with that? Subterfuge:

The head of one modern university says: "There is quite a lot of evidence that students and parents don't really understand the new financial system, so you could play around with it quite easily."

If there's a better justification for teaching yourself the basics of finance, I haven't seen one.

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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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