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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 25th January 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 7:15 pm, 25th January 2017

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions. I am aware that this is an issue that stimulates debate and the contributions have been genuinely informed and reflective.

When the Government reformed student finance in 2011 we put in place a sustainable system designed to make higher education accessible to all. It is working well, because total funding for the sector has increased and will reach £31 billion by 2017-18. These amendments cover a number of areas of the student finance system.

I refer first to the issue of the student loan repayment threshold. The decision to freeze the repayments threshold for post-2012 loans was taken to put higher education funding onto a more sustainable footing. To do this, we had to ask those who benefit from university to meet more of the costs of their studies. I thank my noble friend Lord Willetts for providing a very clear explanation of the threshold freeze and the circumstances that led to it. Freezing the threshold enabled us to abolish student number controls, lifting the cap on aspiration and enabling more people to realise their potential.

On average, graduate earnings remain much higher than those of non-graduates. Students continue to get a fair deal: the current threshold remains £3,500 higher than that for pre-2012 loans. Uprating the threshold in line with average earnings would cost around £5 billion in total by April 2021 compared to the current system. The total cost of uprating by CPI would be around £4 billion over the same period. Taxpayers—many of whom will be non-graduates earning much less than the graduates who would benefit—would have to bear that cost.

On the matter of student loan terms and conditions, I share your Lordships’ desire to ensure that students are protected. That is why the loan terms are set out in legislation. However, it is important that, subject to parliamentary scrutiny, the Government retain the power to adjust terms and conditions. Student loans are subsidised by the taxpayer, and we must ensure that the interests of both borrowers and taxpayers continue to be protected. This amendment would also prevent the Government from making any changes to the loan agreement that would favour the borrower. Finally, we believe that the Government should continue to be able to make necessary administrative amendments to the terms and conditions to ensure that the loans can continue to be collected efficiently.

With regard to the replacement of maintenance grants with loans, I reassure noble Lords that this Government remain committed to increasing access to higher education. Indeed, the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education has increased from 13.6% in 2009 to 19.5% in 2016. We have, furthermore, increased support for students on the lowest incomes by over 10%. Reinstating the system of maintenance grants would reduce the up-front support available for students from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds, while costing the taxpayer over £2.5 billion each year. Students recognise the value of a degree. Lifetime earnings are, on average, higher for graduates than non-graduates and it is right that students who earn more contribute towards the cost of their education. Repayments are related to the ability to pay and start only when a borrower is earning £21,000.

I turn now to the amendments relating to the regulation of student loans. I agree that it is important that students are protected. However—as my noble friend Lord Willetts set out—student loans are not like commercial loans: we must remember that. They are not for profit and are available to all, irrespective of their financial history. Repayments depend on income and the interest rate is limited by legislation. The loans are written off after 30 years with no detriment to the borrower. The key terms and conditions are set out in legislation and are subject to the scrutiny and oversight of Parliament. This means that additional regulation is unnecessary.

Lenders regulated by the FCA are obliged to assess the creditworthiness of all their borrowers, and the affordability and suitability of the loan product for each borrower. Were the Financial Conduct Authority to regulate student loans—as Amendment 449 seeks—it could affect the ability of some students to obtain them. My noble friend Lord Willetts spoke powerfully about that.

Our system allows the Government, through these subsidised loans, to make a conscious investment in the skills of our citizens. I hope that this addresses the concerns raised by noble Lords and I therefore ask that Amendment 444 be withdrawn.