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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.