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No Winners, Just Different Ways To Lose With Student Loan Repayments

20/07/2017 12:46
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For an 18-year-old with limited experience of the earnings and tax system, it's not easy to predict the long-term effects of borrowing £44,000 to fund their degree.

So a new report by London Economics, commissioned by my union, the University and College Union (UCU), should be required reading for all Year 13 and college students and their families as well as for anyone else considering applying to university or with a stake in higher education policy.

The report reveals that there is a looming tax crisis approaching for today's graduates. At a time when they should be looking to start a family, buy a house or invest in a pension, they are going to be hit with massive deductions from their pay in the form of student loan repayments.

This is the first report that analyses the impact of loan repayments by professions over the course of graduates' working lives, and by gender. It reveals that there are marked differences in how much people are forced to pay and the length of time they spend paying different amounts back.

The report exposes how there are no winners under the current student loan system, just different ways to lose. As some better-paid graduates reach their 30s and 40s they will be hit with marginal tax rates of 51%. Meanwhile men on lower salaries working in our public services like teachers, nurses and social workers will never pay their debt off fully and will end up paying more money back in total.

The £9,000 annual tuition fees introduced in 2012 were billed as a progressive income-contingent loan system. The theory went that degree study is free at the point of use and graduates will only pay the debt back once they benefit from higher earnings, so why shouldn't they contribute in later life?

But that progressive claim began to crumble in the face of an inherent flaw and various tweaks that proved to have dire consequences. Ministers promised fees above £6,000 would be the exception, despite everyone else saying £9,000 would be the norm - which of course it was.

Then there were those tweaks: maintenance grants for those from the poorest households were replaced by maintenance loans taking the poorest students' debts up to £57,000; the repayment threshold, which was supposed to rise line with average earnings, was frozen; and interest rates on loans will go up to 6.1% from September.

All this means the poorest students with the biggest debts, all students must now pay the debt back earlier and they'll be earning a whacking level of interest on that debt, even whilst studying.

Transferring the debt on to students has been a failed experiment. It's time for an intelligent and wide-ranging debate on fees and that means thinking outside the box.

As one of the key beneficiaries of higher education, through a pool of talented graduates, we believe that it is time business started to pay its fair share towards the cost. We would charge large, profitable employers through a new Business Education Tax (BET). This innovative, practical and radical approach would be administered by reversing generous tax cuts in corporation tax.

It would apply only to companies with annual profits greater than £1.5m a year. Smaller companies would be unaffected. Corporation tax in our main competitor countries is much higher than in the UK.
The Inland Revenue estimated that a 1p increase in corporation tax would have raised £1.565bn in 2016/17, approximately the cost to government of reducing headline fees from £9,000 to £6,000.

However we believe the UK could go further given tax rates elsewhere in the G7. Even just bringing the UK up to the lowest rate in the G7 would create billions of pounds which could and should be used to invest in the next generation's education.

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