Student loans are an everyday reality for thousands of students in the UK. The average debt for a graduate in England is £32,220, but it can be more than £50,000 for students from poorer families on a four-year course.
One can look at these and other numbers and make mathematical statements: What is the average time it will take a graduate to repay the loan? How to model the average value of a university degree compared to the hopefully higher salary of a graduate with the loan owed to the Student Loans Company. We ask our first-year students at Brunel to create a simplified model of their projected income and loan repayment. It is usually an educational experience for them.
Putting numbers aside, it is important not to forget the psychological effects of starting the adult life with an outstanding loan of this size. The Guardian recently reported about a graduate finding herself in a bureaucratic nightmare when the Student Loans Company mistakenly increased her interest rate for taking a trip abroad. A follow-up story a week later showed that her case was far from unique and that administrative mistakes have made life difficult for many graduates. Kafka remains as relevant today as ever.
Taking out a student loan, a necessary step for many to obtain a university education in England, means ceding freedom and independence to the Student Loans Company that goes beyond taking on a financial obligation. The relationship between the graduate and the Student Loans Company will, in many cases, last the full 30 years until the loan is forgiven. In this time they will amass a wealth of information about each graduate that is matched only by HMRC and the police. However, the Student Loans Company is not the government but rather a company owned by it, which is a convenient sleight of hand.
For example, each trip abroad lasting more than three months has to be reported, together with “evidence”, which includes travel itineraries and bank statements for those going on longer trips. The Student Loans Company is not satisfied with collecting repayments from those earning more than the set threshold, it requests watertight documentation of everyone’s financial situation. Being under such scrutinity for 30 years is bound to leave traces.
What else? The conditions on student loans can be changed retroactively. This happened already when the repayment threshold was frozen in 2015 at £21,000 for five years rather than being uprated annually in line with average earnings. Who is to say that the interest rate will not be changed? Or perhaps the time until the loan is forgiven? And then there is the unfairness of the year-of-birth lottery: those who started university before 2012 have won and paid the lower fees while those who started in 2012 and later lost and had to deal with £9,000 a year.