The great student loan sell-off has begun. After announcing its intention to privatise the £40bn loan book earlier this year, the government has sold a £890m tranche to a private debt collection agency (Erudio Student Loans) for £160m.
The coalition has presented the move as a pragmatic step that will, in the words of Universities minister David Willetts, "allow us to reduce public debt and maximise the value of one of the government’s assets." But in reality, the reverse is the case. In order to attract a private buyer, ministers have sold the loans at a discount of £730m. While analysts will debate the precise price, it would have been impossible for the government to sell them at a profit. As Martin Wolf explained earlier this year, "no private party has a lower borrowing cost than the government, since the government is the most creditworthy entity in the country. So the value of the student loan book to the government, given its low discount rate, is higher than to any potential private buyer."
Why, then, has the government opted for privatisation? Were the UK, like Greece, compelled to sell its assets to stave off bankruptcy, the move would make sense. But with its independent monetary policy (allowing the Bank of England to create new money), its above-average debt maturity and its growing economy, Britain is in no danger of insolvency.
The decision, like so much coalition policy, reflects the Conservatives' determination to prioritise short-term deficit reduction over long-term investment (which is what student loans are). While the sale will save the government money today (allowing it to cut debt or taxes), it will cost its successors money tomorrow. But never mind the long-term economic interests of the country, George Osborne and David Cameron have got an election to win.