Higher Education: Loans - Motion to Regret

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 5th April 2017.

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Photo of Lord Bew Lord Bew Crossbench 6:30 pm, 5th April 2017

My Lords, I particularly support the final part of the Motion to Regret of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. I add my voice to that of other Peers to say how much we have benefited, especially during the passage of the higher education Bill, from the contributions that he has made in this House. Following the example of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, I declare my interest as a visiting professor of King’s College, Cambridge, an honorary fellow of King’s College London and an honorary fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge.

In the first part of his speech tonight, the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, expressed his rejection of what he regarded as the neoliberal approach to higher education. I must confess that my heart warms to that. Part of me that wants to recommend to Ministers the recent book by Stefan Collini on higher education, published by Verso, but I accept that for some years we have had a tripartite consensus about these fundamental matters of financing higher education, and I see little possibility of that consensus changing significantly. I should say, as someone who has worked all his life in the university sector, that I understand that it is not the function of the general public just to keep us in the style to which we have been accustomed. None the less, the last part of the noble Lord’s Motion to Regret contains something of great seriousness. I am more uncomfortable than the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, about the spiralling figures in this area. Everything that we look at unnerves me somewhat. Student loans, for example, in the last year rose to £12.6 billion—17.1% as the first cohort of students who claim the higher level of them graduated. Graduates who pay fees up to £9,000 a year are estimated to have left university with an average of £44,000 worth of debt compared with an average of £16,200 faced by students who graduated five years earlier.

Something seems to be happening with these numbers which must unnerve anybody who is connected or who has a serious interest in our public finances. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, has already referred to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which claims that 70% of the students from those who graduated in the last year are expected never to repay their loans. These things have to concern us. Of those who graduated in 2002, 44% paid the total amount within 13 years. So, we are in a different place now. These are worrying figures. I think that the request that we have an annual report to Parliament which spells out where we are is perfectly reasonable. In that respect I am very happy to support the noble Lord’s Motion to Regret.