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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.