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Student Loans

Volume 552: debated on Thursday 8 November 2012

4. What estimate he has made of the proportion of loans for students starting courses in 2012 with fees of £9,000 a year which will not be fully repaid. (127299)

We estimate that around half of all borrowers will have some part of their loan written off, as repayments are contingent on their future income. Our reforms are more progressive than the previous system, because people start to repay only once they are earning over £21,000. The new system helps reduce the deficit and is affordable and sustainable for the Government, while offering protection to those who may not go on to high paid employment.

I thank the Minister for that response but, despite what he says, some estimates put the cost of the Government’s higher education funding policy at £1 billion more than anticipated, completely wiping out any expected savings. How will he plug that gap?

There is no such gap. That report was an eccentric interpretation of the evidence. Our figures have been checked by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility, and the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has produced its own estimates and reached conclusions that are very similar to ours.

Well, that eccentric report was produced by the highly respected Higher Education Policy Institute, and one of its arguments is based on the findings of the self-same Institute for Fiscal Studies, even though the Minister has just said that it underestimates the figure. The Government originally assumed 32% non-payment, but the IFS, as quoted in the report he dismisses as an eccentricity, cites 37%, and today he has said it will be up to 50%. That is where the £1 billion figure comes from. How will the Government explain that away?

Perhaps it would help my right hon. Friend if I explained that there are two different measures. The answer I gave the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) was that we think about half of all borrowers will have some part of their loan written off. There is a separate calculation for the value of the loans that will be written off, which we estimate will be about 30%, so both figures are correct. Nothing can be completely certain in this life, and repayment essentially depends on future earnings, but what is certain is that starting to repay only when one is earning more than £21,000 is a jolly sight better than repaying when one is earning more than £15,000, which was the system left by the Labour party.

It is clear that the maths supporting the Government’s higher education funding policy is staring to unravel. The Office for Budget Responsibility has shown that tuition fees count towards inflation and will add 0.2 percentage points to the consumer prices index in the fourth quarter of this year, so the impact of the Government’s policies not only will be felt by students, but will have wider implications. Because CPI is the measure by which public pensions and benefits are increased annually, the Government’s welfare bill and civil service pensions will be affected at next year’s annual uprating. Therefore, does the Minister accept that his policies are disastrous not only for students, but for Government finances in general, and what conversations is he having with other Departments about mitigating that?

Let us be absolutely clear about what our reforms will do. They will save money for the Exchequer, but at the same time they will ensure that universities have, if anything, an increase in the cash they receive for teaching, and graduates will repay only when they are earning more than £21,000 a year. That is a fair deal for all the partners in the higher education system.

Is not it the case that costs would be lower if the cost of courses was lower, particularly for the Open university, which was not always supported by the previous Government as fully as it should have been, and for further education that is skills-based? I thank Ministers, in particular, for their recent intervention in Kent college to secure skills-based education in Kent.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is, of course, a range of options for access to higher education, and the Open university is an important part of them.