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Higher Education and Research Bill - Committee (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 25th January 2017.

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Photo of Lord Willetts Lord Willetts Conservative 7:00 pm, 25th January 2017

My Lords, perhaps I could briefly challenge the proposals of the noble Baroness, Lady Garden. I do so very aware of how the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats worked together on this years ago, and I pay tribute once again to my former ministerial colleague, Sir Vince Cable, with whom it was a pleasure to work. But I think her account of the way the decision was taken is not quite correct and I do not think that her proposals for the future will work in the best interests of students or the Exchequer.

When we set the £21,000 repayment threshold in 2011, we were working on the basis of forecasts of where earnings would be by 2017. We thought we were setting the £21,000 repayment threshold at about 75% of earnings—I cannot remember the exact figure. What has happened since then is that earnings have grown by much less than was forecast, as a result of which the repayment threshold has become significantly more generous relative to earnings than we expected when we set it. With the wisdom of hindsight, I wish that we had put in brackets alongside £21,000, “that is, approximately 75% of earnings”, but what is relevant for graduates is that this is relative to their earnings and average earnings. On that basis, the purpose of the current freeze of the £21,000 threshold is to bring it back gradually towards the kind of relationship to average earnings that was envisaged when it was first proposed in 2011.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, that it would be worth having some kind of mechanism for review of this threshold. I have proposed a kind of five-year review at the start of each Parliament of the right place to set the repayment threshold. I do not think some fixed relationship to the RPI is relevant. The big social decision—it is a decision—is where it should be relative to average earnings. Of course, the coalition decided it should be a significantly higher threshold than that in the old system. Although I remember working with Martin Lewis on this, I think his argument that this is some terrible breach of faith is incorrect. This is actually a relationship to earnings which has ended up much higher than was originally expected.

I also think that Amendment 449 is misconceived and would be very dangerous indeed. It proposes that these loans should be regulated as if they are commercial loans by the Financial Conduct Authority. The student loans scheme steers a very narrow course between two equal and opposite problems. One problem would be if student finance were once more counted as public expenditure, as a result of which it would be rationed and we would not see the increase in cash for universities that we have seen. Although some people think this is public spending—to my surprise, the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, talked about there being very little saving to the Exchequer—the fact is that the shift to fees and loans achieved a very significant reduction in public spending. We do not want to go back to the days of it being public spending.

However, neither do we want it to be a commercial loan scheme. It is absolutely not a commercial loan scheme. I worked very closely with Lib Dem colleagues at every opportunity to explain to prospective students that this is not a commercial loan. This is not like an overdraft or a credit card. It is a universal scheme accessible to almost all students and is in no way like taking out a loan from a bank regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. If the Student Loans Company were regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, it would immediately have to go through requirements such as the “know your customer” requirement. It would have to decide: “Should we lend to young John Smith? Is he going to be able to repay? Should we lend to young Janet Smith? Is she going to be able to repay?”. That panoply of assessment of whether individuals should take out loans, which is part of the regulatory regime for commercial loans, should not apply to this provision. This is a universal scheme using taxpayer finance. Therefore, requiring it to be regulated as if it is a commercial loan would be a retrograde step and very regressive.

All three parties in this Chamber today, when faced with the dilemma of how to finance university education, have ended up with an essentially similar model: fees and loans, with a universal loan scheme. It is no accident that we have ended up with this model. It is because it steers between two equal and opposite perils. These Lib Dem amendments would destabilise that model, which is now working to the advantage of students, universities and the Exchequer.