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Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:47 pm on 24th March 2014.

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Photo of John Denham John Denham Labour, Southampton, Itchen 5:47 pm, 24th March 2014

Nicholas Soames spoke of the importance of high skills, so let me consider the Government’s record on higher education. The Government’s approach to funding higher education is scandalously irresponsible. It is bad value for taxpayers, and wilfully makes graduates pay far too much for their degrees. By relying on unsustainable financial mechanisms, the Government threaten the long-term health of our universities.

Under their latest plans, each year the Government will borrow £14.6 billion to fund student loans, and each year they will write off, at taxpayers’ expense, £6.6 billion—a liability of £300 for every household in England, every year, and year after year. On every major judgment the Government have got their figures wrong. They said that fees above £6,000 would be exceptional, but most are at or near the maximum of £9,000. Last year the Government got their projection of student numbers in private colleges so expensively wrong that they had to step in to block recruitment. They said that debt cancellation rates would be 28%; last week they admitted that they are 45%. The public financing of higher education has been out of control since high fees were introduced for purely ideological reasons.

The immediate damage to public finances may be hidden by accounting conventions, but no public accounting convention should be allowed to disguise what is going on. As loans are not repaid in years to come, the cost of today’s higher education is put not just on to graduates but on all future taxpayers, and this is from the Chancellor who said:

“We have always understood that the greatest unfairness was loading debts on to our children that our generation did not have the courage to tackle”.—[Hansard, 26 June 2013; Vol. 565, c. 303.]

A high-fee, high-debt cancellation policy forces up everyone’s fees and institutionalises waste. Of today’s public spending on higher education, £7.50 is spent on debt cancellation for every £1 spent on teaching students. If more were spent on teaching, fees would fall, as would the level of loans, the amount the Government had to borrow, the level and rate of debt cancellation, and the liability on the taxpayer. As a result of fees being lower, we would enjoy the virtuous outcome whereby all graduates would pay back less on their loans and more graduates would fully repay what they had borrowed.

There are many ways of modelling such a change. I set one out myself a few weeks ago at the Royal Society of Arts; it includes some wider changes to the delivery of higher education that are desirable. This is just an illustration of the scale of change that is possible. I am grateful to the House of Commons Library for modelling the figures that I am about to share with the House. With a different approach to higher education, whereby we spent money on teaching, not debt cancellation, Government borrowing would fall from £14.6 billion a year to £9.8 billion a year. Public sector net debt—that is, borrowing less the repayments made—would be about £10 billion lower after eight years and £30 billion lower after 20 years. The cost of debt cancellation each year would fall from £6.6 billion to £3.4 billion. The annual fees for a three-year degree could fall to £3,400 a year —pretty much the same as they were in 2010.