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 Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR