How to thank young people after the Covid? Hardening of student loans

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To say being a teenager for the past few years hasn’t been much fun would be a huge understatement. As a society, we have asked huge numbers of young people throughout Covid – especially since few have faced medical risk themselves.

Students arriving on campus next September will do so after having had much of their youth robbed by the coronavirus. Teenage parties will have been missed, education erased and so on a number of teenage life experiences that are so important in early adulthood.

Many will also have had mental health issues as a result. The focus groups I held with parents of teenagers in the midst of the second national lockdown were some of the darkest evenings I have ever had, as they talked about their children’s toll.

And how do we choose to repay these young people when many of them, blinking in a post-Covid world, head to college? With tuition changes that will force them to repay their tuition when they earn less and longer in their working lives; it’s like that.

Sixth graders who have just finished filling out their UCAS form can now expect to start repaying their loans once they have earned £25,000 instead of the current £27,000 threshold. And they can expect to pay it back much longer than the current 30-year term.

Ministers justify these changes by saying that public finances – especially in the aftermath of the pandemic – simply cannot cope with so much outstanding student debt (a figure which currently stands at around 80%).

To be fair, ministers have tried to mitigate the impact of these decisions by reducing the interest rates that will be charged to new students for the duration of this debt. Graduates may be paying back sooner and longer, but at least that debt won’t grow, they say.

Still, it’s hard not to see these reforms as a nasty little kick from middle-aged politicians to those who have sacrificed so much to protect the old from Covid. Especially when taken alongside the impending National Insurance hikes introduced to pay for adult social care.

There is, however, a counterpoint to this argument. Youth focus group research I have been involved with over the past year suggests that it is not, in fact, tuition-related debt that today’s teens are most worried about to the prospect of going to university.

What worries them the most is the cost of living when they are there. Rent, groceries, textbooks and, yes, the price of a few cans in the unlicensed local are likely to appear prohibitively expensive for many, especially poorer households. It is a worry that is only likely to turn into real panic when the cost of living crisis takes off in the coming months.

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Tuition reimbursement arrangements – good or bad – will make no difference to undergraduate living costs. But the reintroduction of a means-tested maintenance grant system would really do that.

It’s not a pie in the sky idea. Maintenance grants were scrapped by George Osborne as recently as 2015 when it was said the Treasury simply could not afford the £1.57billion price tag. Unlike the billions that have been spent over the life cycle of the coronavirus, this would surely be just a drop in the bucket.

And universities agree. The ever-moderate – and no-nonsense – British Universities Trade Association has long championed the cause, saying it would be a far bigger intervention than other student funding reforms. It is also the policy of the Labor Party.

What better way to say thank you to many young people who have sacrificed their lives so much in confinement than to help them pay for their university education? It’s really the least we can do.

Ed Dorrell is a director at Public First

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