73% of today's students will still be paying off their tuition fees in their 50s

Report warns of sharp rise in debt levels lasting until middle age and calls for review of education funding

Education Editor

Three out of four of today’s students will reach their 50s still owing debts from university of around £30,000, according to a major study published today.

The study, carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies for education charity the Sutton trust, reveals that today’s students leave university with an average debt of £44,000 - almost double those of young people who left before the new fees of up to £9,000 a year came into force.

It says that nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) will fail to clear their debts, and may only have them written off 30 years after graduating, by which time they could be in their mid-50s.

By the time the debt is written off, they are likely to have had to repay £35,446 on average - at a time when they are marrying, setting up home and starting a family.

Only five per cent will repay their debts by the time they are 40, compared with around half of all graduates under the old system.

Claire Crawford, of the IFS and the University of Warwick and a co-author of the report, said: “The new HE finance system will leave graduates with much more debt than before."

However, she added: “Graduates who do less well in the labour market will actually end up paying back less than before, while middle and high earners will pay back much more.” 

Students do not have to start repaying their loans until they earn £21,000 a year, as opposed to £15,000 under the old system.

The report cites the instance of a typical teacher on the average wage for the profession and in continuous employment, who will still owe around £37,000 at the age of 40 and will be expected to repay £1,700 to £2,500 a year throughout their 40s and early fifties “at a time when their children are still at school and family and mortgage costs are at their most pressing”.

“Yet, even with this extra charge on middle earners, there is an increasing likelihood that the Government will end up failing to recoup most of its loans.”

Toni Pearce, president of the National Union of Students, said; “Forcing debt on to students as a way of funding universities is an experiment that has failed our country.”

Today’s report comes a week after Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of Reading University and a former permanent secretary at the Department for Education, said a second “Browne-style” inquiry into student finance was now necessary and was likely to be set up after the 2015 general election. Lord Browne chaired the inquiry which led to the introduction of the £9,000-a-year fees.

It also comes just after the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills admitted that 45 per cent of student debts were unlikely to be repaid, according to estimates.

“It seems middle income earners pay back a lot more but the Exchequer gains little in return,” said Conor Ryan, director of research at the Sutton Trust, which campaigns for equal access for all students to universities. 

“We believe that the Government needs to look again at fees, loans and teaching grants to get a fairer balance.”

Meanwhile, four out of 10 students who get the lowest grades at A-level - three Es - still end up going to university, according to a new study by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, also published today.

The figures show this rises to 60 per cent when only those who take “facilitating subjects” - i.e A-levels ;in subjects like  English, maths and science which are more likely to gain a place at a top university - are considered.

The survey also reveals that the number of language students at university is still in serious decline - with a 22 per cent drop in places awarded between 2010/11 and 2012/13.

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