Written by Sophie Scott

In The News

Do student loans equal uni-fair-sity?

A graduate’s open letter to his MP about how his student loan debt had grown by just shy of £2,000 in the year since he left university went viral. It’s wrong, says Sophie Scott, but it raises some important questions about accessibility for all.

graduates throwing mortar boards into air
The idea of asking students to pay directly towards their university education has always been contentious, with many people (often people who have been to university) feeling that the chance of a university education should be freely available and paid for by central government.

In reality, central government has paid less and less to universities, and aside from a short period in the 60s and 70s when it was possible to study at university on a full grant, there have always been extra costs to the student. This has often meant that a lot of people cannot afford to go to university.

Paradoxically, the data on getting people to pay tuition fees as well as their own costs shows that this has increased the accessibility of university education – a very interesting analysis by Martin Robbins in January this year found that inequality was being decreased across the board, with high proportions of students from poorer backgrounds getting to university, and smaller proportions of students from rich backgrounds. The argument that charging tuition fees would make university education even more restricted to richer students is simply wrong.

…Or at least, it was wrong. The student loans that many people used to fund these costs were very, very cheap loans, and the repayment was linked to people’s salary after leaving university. Student loans were an inexpensive way of borrowing money.

And then, in 2012, the Conservative government very quietly put the interest rates up. Hey presto, suddenly graduates are responsible for loan repayments which cost more than a mortgage. Well, kind of. It’s complicated.

For those students taking out a loan from September 2012 onwards – many of whom will be graduating and starting full-time work this summer – the rate was always set to be inflation plus 3 per cent. What’s more, it almost doesn’t matter what a student owes, the fact is every graduate repays 9 per cent of everything they earn above £21,000 for 30 years. Most won’t pay the full debt off within that time, so it works as a sort of additional income tax at that rate and then is wiped – with the taxpayer funding the gap. All pretty confusing when you’re signing on the dotted line at 17 though, right?

student debtAlso, due to the government freezing the salary level at which students start repaying at £21,000 until at least 2021, recent graduates are being confronted with repayments they possibly can’t afford and may not realise they signed up to. That’s a neat solution to all that stealthy equality that crept into the system, no? Overnight, student loans jumped from being a genuinely affordable way for anyone to get to study at university, to something that once again, only the rich can afford. Or better still, that only the rich don’t need to rely on.

I went to a polytechnic under the last Conservative administration, where a proper old-school communist used to rant to us about Marx and Engels (please note: he was supposed to be teaching us psychology). One of his favourite topics, while we patiently waited for him to get back onto models of variable reinforcement schedules, was that the Conservatives did not want the great unwashed to receive further education, as that would give them ideas above their station and they might even work out what was going on politically.

To shift the financial goalposts just when university education was genuinely becoming more accessible to more people might be greed, it might be incompetence – or it just could be that he was right.


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Written by Sophie Scott

I am a cognitive neuroscientist at UCL, and I study brains, voices, speaking and laughing. In my spare time I try to turn theory into practice with science based stand up comedy. @sophiescott