Martin Lewis, who runs the Money Saving Expert website, has accused George Osborne of “not having the balls” to tell millions of students and graduates that they will be hit by a “retrospective hike” to student loan costs.
Mr Lewis told Times Higher Education that the freeze in the £21,000 repayment threshold, disclosed today in the spending review document but not mentioned by the chancellor in his speech, was “abominable”. The government’s consultation on the plan, he added, had been a “charade”.
Mr Lewis chaired the Independent Taskforce on Student Finance Information, which was established in 2011 with government support as ministers tried to ensure that students were not deterred from applying to university by the £9,000 fee regime.
That information included a government commitment to uprate the £21,000 repayment threshold in line with average earnings. Ministers had originally made the commitment to MPs in 2010 as they sought to secure votes in support of the trebling of fees.
Mr Lewis previously told THE that as task force chair he had “asked the question” of the government “countless times and was told…[the threshold] would be going up”.
But the spending review document confirms that the government will freeze the threshold for five years, a move that will affect current students and graduates who took out post-2012 loans.
This follows a consultation in which the government said that a retrospective freeze affecting current borrowers, not just future borrowers, was its preferred option. The analysis of consultation responses says that 84 per cent of respondents opposed the plan.
Mr Lewis accused the chancellor of “sneaking it in the back door” by including it “in the subtext” of the spending review document but not mentioning it in his speech.
He added: “George Osborne doesn’t have the balls to tell the 2 million people who he’s retrospectively hiking costs for that they [the government] are going to do it.
“My point has always been the retrospective nature of this. It is a standard principle of good governance that you don’t retrospectively change things. That’s exactly what they are doing.
“I am absolutely furious. More than that, we’ve been through a charade of a consultation…I call it a charade because 84 per cent of the consultation responses said ‘don’t do this’.”
He continued: “What’s the point of having a bloody consultation if everyone says this is a stupid thing to do and then you do it anyway?…Unless it was just a sop, some pretence that they were listening. This is a mistake. This runs the risk of knocking faith in the system of student loans.”
Mr Lewis argued that if future potential students believed that their loan terms and conditions might be changed retrospectively, they might be deterred from going to university.
He also said: “No commercial lender or private institution would have been allowed to do this without being slapped massively by the regulator and told to stop it. It’s abominable that the government thinks it can get away with it and allows itself to.”
Mr Lewis mounted a campaign against the changes, which he said had led “hundreds and probably thousands of members of the public” to write to their MPs to oppose the change.
He said that he was now “trying to work out what my next step is”. He added that he needed to be “realistic that I don’t think we can turn this around. But I think the government needs to understand it shouldn’t and cannot behave this way.”