How should we view student debt?
One of the growing concerns across the developed world is that student debt will increasingly deter young people from entering higher education. In the United States the level of graduate debt is now over $900 billion, a sum considerably larger than American credit card debt. In England individual student debt in the more extreme cases has risen above £60,000.
So is this a major problem in the quest to widen participation in higher education? Not so, according to the English Universities Minister David Willetts in an interview in the Guardian newspaper:
‘We’re trapped in this language of debt. It’s not like leaving university with £25,000 worth of debt on your credit card or anything. If someone said your child was leaving university with £25,000 on a credit card, you’d be quite rightly horrified. If someone said they’re leaving university and during their working lives they’re going to pay half a million pounds of income tax, you’d be completely relaxed. And our graduate repayment scheme is closer to – it’s not exactly the same – but it’s closer to the income-tax end of the scale than the credit-card end of the scale. If their earnings ever fall below £21,000, at that point any repayment stops. It’s 9% of earnings only above £21,000. If you’re earning £25,000, that’s £30 a month. So it is a graduate repayment scheme that has many of the features of income tax. It’s not like some debt around their necks.’
The Minister’s argument is not on the face of it absurd. In fact, if the government had decided to generate the income for universities through a graduate tax, or rather if it had labelled the same scheme differently, the effect might have been different. But it didn’t, and fees will be funded by loans, which in turn produce debt. It is still too early to gauge exactly what impact this is having, but the first visible effect has been a significant reduction in the number of student applicants.
The evidence from the United States, Australia and Britain all points to a similar conclusion: that student loans have unintended consequences and present both a disincentive to study and financial uncertainties attached to repayments. In this setting, it would be wise for countries contemplating loan schemes – like Ireland – to think again. It is one thing to ask those who can afford to do so to pay a tuition fee; it is another to suggest to those who cannot afford it that a loan may be an acceptable form of support. It almost certainly isn’t.