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: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.