As the complexity of higher education funding, and the scarcity of available resources to provide funding, has become greater, an increasingly popular method of addressing it has been the idea of student loans. When the Westminster government introduced its recent framework for increased university fees for England, ministers emphasised that a university degree programme was still accessible to students without paying anything up front, and indeed without repaying anything until a reasonable salary threshold has been reached. By providing student loans, the system allows students to embark upon their studies without either them or their parents having to fork out anything at that point.
So is this as good as it sounds? No financial hurdles for students while studying, but financial benefits for universities from fees? Actually, England was not first to try this idea. Australia has been operating a fees/loans system for some time. It was introduced in 1989 as the ‘Higher Education Contribution Scheme’ (HECS), which has more recently been replaced by the ‘Higher Education Loan Programme’ (HELP). This scheme has been used as a model for higher education funding programmes contemplated or introduced elsewhere, including in Ireland. Student loan programmes are also common in the United States.
However, all these schemes are somewhat problematic. In Australia it was estimated in 2010 that outstanding student loans debt was $15.8 billion. In the United States student debt overtook credit card debt around the same time. Furthermore, it has been revealed in America that where graduates begin to re-pay their student loans, nearly 10 per cent default within two years. It is not unlikely that this pattern will be repeated in England, and if it is, it will create a whole new funding issue as the expected resources from loan repayments do not fully materialise.
There is, I believe, a strong case for tuition fees paid by the well off, with financial support for those who cannot afford to pay. There is also a case for state funding of higher education fees, provided the state understands the scale of the funding requirement. There seems to me to be no convincing case for loan schemes. They deter students, and they create unpredictable financial issues. It is time to move away from the whole idea.