Sophisticated scrutiny (1 of 2)

June 14, 2012

Thank you for hosting an important debate in recent weeks on the sustainability of the student loan system and the security for borrowers when it comes to repayment terms. David Willetts deserves credit for engaging in the arguments ("Without fees reform, our children would really feel the pinch", Opinion, 31 May), but he failed to tackle the key issue, namely that regulations alone are enough to amend the crucial repayment terms, even for existing borrowers - the parliamentary equivalent of a nod and a wink.

We are given assurances that there are no plans to change the terms, but we have seen so many pledges on higher education funding broken over the past 15 years that such assurances mean little. Some point out that previous changes have only improved the terms (notably the threshold for repayments rising from £10,000 to £15,000 and now to £21,000). A fair point, but will the latest promise to increase the threshold in line with earnings be kept? This matters to maintaining the balance of the system over time, but is easy to abandon and expensive for the government.

Some say the National Union of Students is scaremongering, but they cannot see that the undertaking itself is scary. One applicant told me: "I didn't want to accept the terms, knowing that it would be an agreement to all future terms." For graduates using a similar system in New Zealand whose loan repayments are about to increase, these chickens have already come home to roost.

We should all be realistic and reasonable on this issue. Even if we set aside the serious concerns about sustainability raised by Andrew McGettigan, circumstances and priorities change, requiring choices to be made about loan repayment policy. There is nothing sinister in this (for example, I argued that the repayment threshold in Scotland should remain at £15,000, when Westminster increased it to £21,000, to protect funding for maintenance support). All we seek is a guarantee that proposals to change the terms will receive full parliamentary scrutiny as part of primary legislation. This would not stop the structure from being changed in the future, as this Parliament cannot bind its successors. But it would ensure that changes would be authorised by MPs whom the public can hold to account. Does Willetts really see fault in this? If not, will he do it?

Liam Burns, President, National Union of Students

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