The Labour Party must draw up plans to write off much of the debt run up by students who paid fees under England’s post-2012 funding regime if it is to implement its promise of free tuition, a leading academic has said.
Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder professor of geography at the University of Oxford, has proposed a model under which graduates who were among the first cohort of students to pay £9,000 a year for their degree would have their tuition debts written off to the extent that they would owe no more than graduates who started their course in 2011-12, and hence were the last to pay £3,000 a year.
Students in the final cohort to pay higher fees – currently capped at £9,250 – would have their debts written off to the extent that they would owe little more than the first year group of any future free tuition system, with the debts of graduates in the cohorts in-between being cancelled on a tapering scale.
Professor Dorling, who was set to present his ideas at a seminar hosted by UCL’s Centre for Global Higher Education on 14 June, said that this solution would ensure that no graduate was significantly disadvantaged by changes in student finance policy simply because they had been born a year earlier or later than another graduate.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn faced controversy after the 2017 general election when he said that his pledge to “deal with” historic student debt did not amount to a promise to write off all outstanding loans. It has been estimated that an across-the-board debt moratorium could cost taxpayers about £100 billion.
But Professor Dorling said that Labour needed to draft a policy on the issue because it would be asked “more and more” about student debt. He acknowledged that his proposal would cost tens of billions of pounds but argued that it was important to address a “point of principle”, and explained that the amounts of money involved were “minuscule” compared with the overall demands on public finances.
Professor Dorling argued that his suggestion had the advantage of falling short of pledging to abolish all debt, hence avoiding the need to reimburse people who paid £3,000 a year, who were more likely to have paid their debts off. The approach was fair, he added, because those who studied under the post-2012 regime and had repaid their loan – or had never taken one out in the first place – were likely to be from the most privileged backgrounds.
Starting the conversation now would make companies considering buying part of the student loan book, which the government is trying to sell, aware of the risk that they were taking. The scenario envisaged by Professor Dorling could even occur under a future Conservative government, he argued, given the party’s increasing concern over student finance.
“It’s necessary to put forward a potential policy to deal with outstanding debt, and my main idea is to take the last to come in under the current regime and the first to come in and to try to ensure that their economic futures are as similar as possible to the students one year away from them in time,” Professor Dorling told Times Higher Education.
“We need several of these suggestions, and we need them now – there could be a snap election, but there will certainly be one by 2022, and this needs to be talked about years before implementation to avoid a cock-up.”