The secret plan to raise the price of student finance hints the government wants to privatise loans

Deferred gratification is not this lot's strong point.

Since the Guardian's scoop about "Project Hero", the secret Government report which proposed retroactively raising the price of student loans, there've been a couple of extra points raised which deserve thinking about.

The first is about the language used. Ministers were given a script, by which they might sell the plans to recent graduates. They were supposed to tell them that:

We all live in difficult times. You have a deal which is so much better than your younger siblings (they will incur up to £9,000 tuition fees and up to RPI+3% interest rates); it won’t make any difference to how much you pay in the short or medium term, just how long you pay it for.

The timing of the report is important to bear in mind, here. It was finalised after the Government had already approved, but not yet implemented, the post-2012 fee regime. A fee regime which was described as "fairer - opening the doors of universities to everyone, regardless of where they're from" and "the fairest option on the table - fairer than the current system and fairer than the graduate tax too" by David Cameron, and "a system of graduate contributions that is fair for all" by David Willets.

Few students going in to university in 2012 will have thought that they were experiencing a "fairer" system than their older siblings did; so it's interesting to know that exactly at the same time that ministers were making these pronouncements, the experts they'd hired to work out how to squeeze the most out of the graduates were busy telling them that it was self-evident that the fee regime was being made much worse.

The second point is the motivation for the changes. Raising the interest rate payable on loan balances won't get any extra money to the government now, when the vast majority of loans taken out since 1998 remain outstanding. Instead, it will increase the time taken to fully pay off the loans, in some cases pushing it all the way back to the 25-year/retirement maximum. That means as time goes on, and people who would have paid back their loans carry on paying off the interest, more money comes into the state.

But this is a government supremely, myopically concerned with the deficit now. If they were able to defer pleasure, they'd have waited to cut the deficit until we were out of depression, after all. So why do it? To make the loan book more appealing to private investors.

The idea of selling off the student loan portfolio has been mooted for a while now. It's an easy way of turning a bunch of future income streams into one handy payment. And if that sounds a bit like a daytime TV advert for debt refinancing, that's because it is. The Government would inevitably sell the debt – which is estimated at between £35bn and £45bn – at far below what they would get if they held on to it. That's partially because you always lose cash if you divest yourself of risk, but it's also because this is not a sale which we can expect to be entered into with the Government negotiating at strength. It's such a political football that any potential buyer will know that once the decision's been made, they aren't going to back track – and so offers below par will be accepted to save face.

That's even more likely to be the case if the Government decides to privatise the loan book before the election in 2015. That will be a fire-sale to remember.

If the measures proposed in Project Hero are enacted, it won't be the end of the fight over student finance – just the start of the next battle.

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.

Photo: ASA
Show Hide image

Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA