The growing problem of student debt

Students loans aren't working in the UK
Students loans aren’t working in the UK

Student loans aren’t working.

They aren’t helping those who need help the most. At the same time, they are scaring potential students away and making the universities irresponsibly rich. They are also creating a future debt time bomb that will bring the country to its knees again, when it becomes clear that a massive proportion of the ‘loans’ are never going to be paid off, in the not too distant future.

Universities are no longer incentivised to deliver the best possible education, but rather strip back the contact time to the minimum they can get away with, whilst still achieving acceptable results. The focus is becoming about getting a result rather than learning to love a subject, inspire a new generation or just progress thinking in their area of study. I’m sure there are many exceptions, but with so many students coming from the middle majority who only got average A levels, standards simply have to fall, whilst universities just get richer.

Universities are now becoming ultra-powerful property owners and managers, creating a near monopoly for student accommodation in their city or campus. We all know that a position of monopoly will always drive competition down and prices up. This isn’t good news for students.

The university is no longer just taking the £9k tuition fee but adding an average of £500 per month for accommodation too, which adds up to £6k on top. Restrictions for private landlords are being added by the universities to make it harder for genuine competition to enter the market. Any graduate of my generation will have lived in some terrible ‘Young Ones’ style places as students and it probably made us appreciate how lucky we were to be gaining our free education and living away from home.

But graduating with £50-60k of debt is a bad thing. The thought of the debt is enough to put off some very bright young people who are scared of carrying that debt burden through their life ahead. Even worse when the government up the interest rate to 6% it is just asking to be bundled up and sold to the highest bidder, which means the graduate debtor will be pursued mercilessly for payback.

A reasonable earning graduate who becomes say a senior leader in a school by the time they reach 30 years old may be paying back £300 per month for their loan. They will also be paying into their pension at the same time. They may also be trying to buy a house or even bring up kids. It is just not possible to do all of these things at the same time unless you are from the very richest elite, where money isn’t an issue anyway.

If you don’t need a degree to enter your intended job, more and more will conclude that it doesn’t make financial sense to do so. As such, far less will actually go and our university sector will become ever more desperate cost-cutters.

There will also be millions of graduates who never get to the earning threshold to pay the loan back and little incentive for them to earn over it and start being hit hard by the payback they will face when they do.

So my solution is simple. Introduce proper means testing again, so the poorest get the most help, the richest get none and change the payback of a loan into a payment into a personal pension.

We should cap university tuition fees to a sensible level. Ensure class sizes are sensible too and agree a minimum amount of contact and one to one time.

We also need to cap accommodation fees so they are at least reasonable. £500 per month rent is the price of a small house per month to rent, not a single bedroom in a flat with five others who all share a kitchen – unless you are in central London.

And finally, add a new type of graduate tax, where they pay an extra few percent, but that tax goes into an individual pension contribution account for them to claim when they are old enough to retire – however old that may be by then. That way, they become self-sufficient and the state is paid back by helping them to provide for themselves in their old age.

University education should be free and accessible to everyone who is bright and motivated enough to pursue it. It can’t just be a right for the rich or those with the nerve to go massively into debt and mortgage their own futures.

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