Student Loans: all for one and one for all

On Friday UCAS (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) released figures detailing University applications for courses starting in 2014. The results are good news for equality in the UK. Applications rates for university places have increased across the board for 18 year olds but more importantly the gap between the most advantaged areas and the most disadvantaged areas has narrowed. In 2004 only 10.7% of 18 year olds in the most disadvantaged areas applied to university for 2014 that’s up to 20.5%, even higher than the 18% in 2011 (before the tuition fee rise).  

The numbers applying in the most advantaged areas have also increased but at a much slower rate, from 47.3% in 2004 to 51.4% in 2014. All this means that the ratio of applications from advantaged and disadvantaged areas has narrowed from 4.4 to 2.5. Whilst it is deeply concerning to see that an 18 year old is two and a half times more likely to apply for University if they live in the most advantaged area, compared to the most disadvantaged area, this represents some progress.

As I’ve written here before even though the numbers of people going to university is increasing, the wage advantage graduates have over non-graduates is bigger than ever. This is why more 18 year olds from poorer areas making up a greater proportion of those who go to university helps to reduce inequality.

It’s not surprising that more and more people are now entering higher education. They are getting a great deal compared to those who don’t. The amount graduates can expect to earn will on average greatly increase, and the cost is the repayment of one of the most progressive loan available.

This is because a student loan isn’t like any other debt. The current student loan is not repaid until a graduate is earning over £21,000 which is close to the UK median wage (£21,905). They will also pay it back very slowly, around £30 a month if they are earning £25k. If they never manage to earn enough to pay it back after 30 years it will be written off. In contrast, people doing vocational courses that don’t fit into the narrow requirements for the student loan can only claim a “professional and career development loan” which is considerably less generous. Whether or not they manage to find a job after finishing their course they are expected to pay back £200 a month. If they can’t afford to pay their loan then, they face the same consequences as anyone else who can’t pay their debts: debt collectors and bankruptcy.

Whilst the recent news from UCAS should be warmly applauded we shouldn’t forget those who don’t attend university. Better educated workers earn more and have skills that allow them to better compete in the global marketplace. To help combat inequality the UK needs to encourage as many people as possible to become as highly skilled as possible. One good place to start would be to consider offerring the generous loan terms given to university students to those pursuing other career pathways. 

Tim Stacey, Policy and Campaigns Officer