A survey published just days before A-level results are released calculates that students starting university this autumn will be more than £23,000 in debt by the time they graduate. With opportunities for full-time employment forecast to be fewer and pay little higher than it is today, those looking forward to starting three years or more of higher education could be forgiven for wondering whether it is all worthwhile.
They should not be deterred. Consider the figures first of all. The projected £23,500 is just that: a projection. It depends on a whole set of variables, including the inflation rate, fee levels and job availability. It does not, as some have implied, relate exclusively to the top-up fees, which students can pay by deferred loans. It relates also to credit-card and other debt, which is largely within the individual student's control. Nor will the scarcity of part-time work – one of the reasons why student debt is said to have soared over the past year – necessarily continue. If the economy starts to pick up, those jobs could be among the first to return.
The least avoidable expenses for students are top-up fees, which are to be reviewed by the Government in the autumn. Student groups and others hostile to these fees are bound to cite the debt figures as a reason to scrap them and go back to the drawing board on university funding. The sharp rise in university applications this year, however, provides convincing evidence that this is not necessary. School-leavers appear to be making the reasonable calculation that, in a difficult employment climate, a degree is more necessary, rather than less. They are treating it as a worthwhile investment in their future.
There are two genuine worries that need to be addressed. The first relates to the fact that those entering higher education today are likely to carry a burden of debt with them into early middle age or longer. This is something that exercises both students and their families. But many of their fears can be allayed. The interest rate on student loans is low, and it will be in any government's interest to keep it so. What is more, no one has to start repayments before their salary reaches a certain level. Some, who either do not earn or remain low-paid, will not have to repay anything. For those who do, the monthly sums might best be thought of as an extra tax rather than a loan repayment, something akin to the graduate tax that is often mooted as an alternative.
Of course, graduates – like anyone else – will probably seek further credit in time, most likely a mortgage to buy a home. But student debt and loan repayments need not hamper this. They will be tiny compared with a mortgage, and lenders will become accustomed to factoring student loans into credit arrangements. This is still a relatively new area.
The second concern relates to school-leavers from low-income families. There is evidence that they are more averse to debt than their richer peers and that top-up fees have been more of a discouragement to them. Many will, in fact, qualify for grants that do not have to be repaid. But both the Government and the universities need to publicise the financial help on offer much more widely. Universities need encouragement to establish more scholarships; they would also do well to foster more "needs blind" admissions on the US model. Top-up fees have drummed home the truth that higher education has a cost – which is a good thing – but no one should be excluded for lack of means.