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Student and Graduate Finance: Cost of Living

Volume 708: debated on Monday 31 January 2022

3. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of (a) student and (b) graduate finance in the context of the cost of living. (905328)

21. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of (a) student and (b) graduate finance in the context of the cost of living. (905347)

We have frozen maximum tuition fees for the fifth year in succession, saving a typical full-time student finishing a course in the 2022-23 academic year over £3,000 in fee loans for the three-year degree. Maximum grants and loans have increased by 3.1% for the current academic year, with a further 2.3% increase announced for the next academic year.

As a result of their extremely high tuition fees—the highest in the world—English students leave university with three or four times the amount of debt that Scots do. Freezing the loan repayment threshold—along with the national insurance hike and the high, rising costs of food—significantly affects young graduates. Why are the Government failing to support students and graduates during this cost of living crisis?

As I said, this will be the fifth year in succession that maximum fees have been frozen, saving a full-time student finishing a course over £3,000. With median non-graduate salaries at £25,000, it is right that we work to make the system sustainable and fair for the taxpayer, including those who do not choose to attend university, especially when only a quarter of those currently starting a course will actually fully repay their loan.

Despite what the Minister said, the fact is that the Government have broken yet another promise that the student loan repayment threshold would be frozen. That means that, when student loan repayments are taken into consideration, together with the national insurance tax hike, graduates earning just over £27,000 a year will pay a marginal tax rate of an eye-watering 42.25%. Will the Minister explain to the House why she thinks that is fair?

It is important that we strike a fair deal for students, graduates and the taxpayer. Only a quarter of those who take out a loan now will fully repay it, and as the hon. Member knows, the terms of these loans are very different from commercial loans. For instance, if someone loses their job or their salary reduces, their payments will change immediately.

Universities have a duty to provide students with value for money and they have undoubtedly been receiving a poorer education through remote learning. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, now that plan B measures have ended, every university should welcome back students to lecture halls, or provide refunds?

I do agree. Online learning can be a great way to supplement and enhance learning, but let me be clear: it should not be used as a cost-cutting exercise and it should not be used to avoid utilising face-to-face provision. As the Secretary of State has outlined, we expect universities to be up-front and transparent about what students can expect, and I am personally calling vice-chancellors where we are concerned that this is not happening.

Surely the ministerial team realise that student finance is in a terrible mess, with many students struggling to pay money back and many students refused a mortgage because of their student debt. This is a serious situation. The Government have got to get a handle on it and do something about what is going on, particularly in relation to the weak and enfeebled Office for Students.

Contrary to the hon. Member’s assertion, mortgages do not take into account student loans and we should put that on record. We are committed to a sustainable higher education funding model that supports high-quality provision, meets our skills gaps and maintains the world-class reputation of our higher education institutions, which is exactly why we will respond to the Augar review in full in due course.