A report released on the 18th of November by the Higher Education Commission, an independent think tank, found that two-thirds of English students will not be able to pay off their student loans. This compares to just 25% before the tuition fees were increased in 2012 by the current coalition government.
The Commission ‘fundamentally questions’ the sustainability of a system that charges students with fees that are higher than they are able to pay off. As it is now, a loan is written off by the government if it has not been paid back within 30 years. This is the ‘worst of both worlds’ the report warns, as the government effectively funds higher education by writing off student debt instead of investing in grants. The Commission is also worried that many middle-income earners, especially public sector workers, teachers and health professionals – who rely on a degree to get a job – will be haunted by debt for a large portion of their working lives.
The release of the report paradoxically coincided with the recent news that saw the last state in Germany abolishing tuition fees, where a minister commented that they do not want ‘higher education which depends on the wealth of the parents.’ The National Union of Students has called for a free educational system funded by progressive taxation, a system that apart from Germany, is being used in the Nordic countries. Even the debt of students in the US – a country often seen as the epitome of large student debts – is lower than in the UK, averaging about £21,000 compared to £44,000 (post-2012 reforms), explained by the widespread use of grants and scholarships.
With a general election coming up this spring, the question is a vote-catcher, although no major UK party has a free education policy the moment. The question is likely to remain contentious but whoever is willing to tackle the issue will receive a lot of praise from students.