The parties can't ignore the looming student finance crisis

With further cuts to higher education and 40 per cent of student loans unlikely to be repaid, the parties need to agree on a sustainable funding system.

George Osborne announced this morning that seven government departments have already agreed to further spending cuts in 2015-16. The business department was not among these ‘early settlers’, although most in the higher education sector expect major cuts to be coming their way.

In the last Spending Review, universities were spared significant reductions because their burden of deficit reduction was met by much higher tuition fees for future graduates. Having taken this controversial decision, the government has relatively little room for further large cuts in higher education spending, without potentially damaging a sector that is critical to our future prosperity.

Against this background, IPPR’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education (which reports on 10 June) will recommend a number of short term measures to help universities get through the next Spending Review while ensuring that they remain well placed to support Britain’s economic and social renewal as we enter the 2020s.

The government should start by protecting the cash ring-fence around the science and research budget, which implies real term reductions, but on a manageable scale. It should also protect funding for widening participation, which goes to universities to recruit and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds. To find the resources for these measures, the government should hold steady the proportion of 18-21 year olds going to university on full cost courses, releasing between £1.5bn and £3bn over the next seven years because of a natural decline in the numbers of 18-year-olds in the population.

Universities should also take some of the cost cutting strain by freezing the ‘teaching grant’ in cash terms, alongside a freeze in the maximum tuition fee at £9,000, until at least 2017-18. Conversely, to enable institutions to raise more fee income, international students should be removed from the government’s net migration target.

In order to continue to expand higher education opportunities during this period of fiscal restraint, the Commission will argue that the government should create a new £5,000 ‘fee-only degree’ for students who live at home and/or work part-time. Students would not be eligible for maintenance grants or loans but would pay a lower tuition fee. This would allow an expansion of student places because of the very low up front cost.

The package of savings identified by the Commission could help the sector get through the Spending Review but there is still a long-term funding challenge facing universities. The government underestimated the amount of money that will repaid in loans by future graduates. It first predicted that 30 per cent of the total loans advanced would not be repaid but our Commission estimates the figure is more likely to be 40 per cent, eventually producing a black hole that could be as big as £1bn.

This means that all parties will need to propose ways of reforming the student funding system in their manifestos that will be sustainable in the long-term. The IPPR Commission has modeled a number of options for reform. One option is to try to recoup more money through the existing system, such as by increasing the rate of interest paid by the highest earning graduates. Another option proposed by the Labour Party and others is bringing the fee cap down to £6,000. This cuts long term costs but produces a short term funding gap (we estimate £1.67 bn) which Labour has pledged to fill in part from an increase in corporation tax.

Another widely canvassed option is to introduce a graduate tax. A tax of 2p in the pound paid by graduates through the tax system once they have left university is economically feasible but it bumps straight up against government accounting rules (set by the ONS and not by politicians). These currently score all fee loans as cash transactions that are ‘off balance sheet’ in the public accounts. When the loan becomes a tax, the fee outlay has to appear ‘on balance sheet’ as government spending. This means that, unless accounting rules could be changed (which most experts agree is unlikely), introducing a graduate tax would technically add around £7bn to the deficit.

Politicians might have thought that student funding had been put to bed as a difficult issue in the run-up to the next general election. They need to think again. With the likelihood of another hung parliament the parties will need to agree on a sustainable long term funding system for our universities.

Rick Muir is Associate Director for Public Service Reform at IPPR. The final report of IPPR’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education will be published on Monday 10 June.

Demonstrators chant slogans during a student rally against rises in tuition fees. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation

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In your 30s? You missed out on £26,000 and you're not even protesting

The 1980s kids seem resigned to their fate - for now. 

Imagine you’re in your thirties, and you’re renting in a shared house, on roughly the same pay you earned five years ago. Now imagine you have a friend, also in their thirties. This friend owns their own home, gets pay rises every year and has a more generous pension to beat. In fact, they are twice as rich as you. 

When you try to talk about how worried you are about your financial situation, the friend shrugs and says: “I was in that situation too.”

Un-friend, right? But this is, in fact, reality. A study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that Brits in their early thirties have a median wealth of £27,000. But ten years ago, a thirty something had £53,000. In other words, that unbearable friend is just someone exactly the same as you, who is now in their forties. 

Not only do Brits born in the early 1980s have half the wealth they would have had if they were born in the 1970s, but they are the first generation to be in this position since World War II.  According to the IFS study, each cohort has got progressively richer. But then, just as the 1980s kids were reaching adulthood, a couple of things happened at once.

House prices raced ahead of wages. Employers made pensions less generous. And, at the crucial point that the 1980s kids were finding their feet in the jobs market, the recession struck. The 1980s kids didn’t manage to buy homes in time to take advantage of low mortgage rates. Instead, they are stuck paying increasing amounts of rent. 

If the wealth distribution between someone in their 30s and someone in their 40s is stark, this is only the starting point in intergenerational inequality. The IFS expects pensioners’ incomes to race ahead of workers in the coming decade. 

So why, given this unprecedented reversal in fortunes, are Brits in their early thirties not marching in the streets? Why are they not burning tyres outside the Treasury while shouting: “Give us out £26k back?” 

The obvious fact that no one is going to be protesting their granny’s good fortune aside, it seems one reason for the 1980s kids’ resignation is they are still in denial. One thirty something wrote to The Staggers that the idea of being able to buy a house had become too abstract to worry about. Instead:

“You just try and get through this month and then worry about next month, which is probably self-defeating, but I think it's quite tough to get in the mindset that you're going to put something by so maybe in 10 years you can buy a shoebox a two-hour train ride from where you actually want to be.”

Another reflected that “people keep saying ‘something will turn up’”.

The Staggers turned to our resident thirty something, Yo Zushi, for his thoughts. He agreed with the IFS analysis that the recession mattered:

"We were spoiled by an artificially inflated balloon of cheap credit and growing up was something you did… later. Then the crash came in 2007-2008, and it became something we couldn’t afford to do. 

I would have got round to becoming comfortably off, I tell myself, had I been given another ten years of amoral capitalist boom to do so. Many of those who were born in the early 1970s drifted along, took a nap and woke up in possession of a house, all mod cons and a decent-paying job. But we slightly younger Gen X-ers followed in their slipstream and somehow fell off the edge. Oh well. "

Will the inertia of the1980s kids last? Perhaps – but Zushi sees in the support for Jeremy Corbyn, a swell of feeling at last. “Our lack of access to the life we were promised in our teens has woken many of us up to why things suck. That’s a good thing. 

“And now we have Corbyn to help sort it all out. That’s not meant sarcastically – I really think he’ll do it.”