This is the conclusion of an independent inquiry into the student loans system in the wake of Chancellor George Osborne’s budget decision to allow universities with “good quality” teaching to raise their fees in line with inflation every year.
Academics were predicting this – coupled with the decision to axe maintenance grants and replace them with loans – could be the last straw for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds fearful of debt in deciding whether to apply to university.
Will Hutton, economics expert and chairman of the Independent Commission on Fees – set up by education charity the Sutton Trust, said: “Debt is likely to become a bigger issue.
“Under the current system, nearly three-quarters of students will fail to clear their student loans before they are written off after 30 years and the large majority will still be paying off their debts into their forties – figures that will increase with the abolition of grants and increase in fees. “
Mr Hutton added: “It is not clear that students will continue to disregard debt. At the same time, it looks increasing likely that any anticipated gains to the Treasury will be largely wiped out by these non-payments.”
Professor Anne West, director of the Education Research Group at the London School of Economics, said the report “raises serious concerns about the current student loans system”.
“The planned changes to fees and to student financial support are likely to have far-reaching negative effects on students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” she added,
A survey by ComRes commissioned for the inquiry revealed that significant numbers of sixth-formers were concerned about the cost of going to university.
Of the 1,017 16 to 18-year-olds polled, 78 per cent said they were “very” or “fairly” concerned about the cost of living as a student, 68 per cent about high tuition fees and 58 per cent about having to repay their loans once their studies were finished.
Another survey of current students by the National Union of Students revealed one in three (35 per cent) said they would have chosen not to go to university without the help of a maintenance grant.
The Commission is calling for the Office of Budget Responsibility to carry out its own investigation into whether the student loans system provides value for money for both the student and taxpayer.
The report acknowledges that higher numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds were now entering higher education – despite the current fee ceiling of £9,000 a year.
However, it reveals that this is largely down to applications from girls – who are 48 per cent more likely to gain entry to university than boys – with 21.8 per cent of girls applying compared to just 14.7 per cent of boys.
This, the report argues, “points to pockets of the country where there is a cultural challenge to males in particular that could lead to the entrenchment of low income and lack of opportunity”.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK – the body which represents vice-chancellors, said: “Allowing the value of the fee to be maintained in real terms is essential to allow universities to continue to deliver a high quality learning experience for students.”
A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: “We are committed to giving everyone the opportunity to get a degree, regardless of their background or ability to pay. Students will get more money in their pockets …
“The Budget was clear that only institutions offering high quality teaching will be able to increase tuition fees in line with inflation from 2017/18.”
At present, most universities are charging the full £9,000 a year for courses and – depending on how strictly the Chancellor’s proviso that “good quality” teaching universities will be able to raise fees – it is likely that most will want to take advantage of his offer.
Meanwhile, the Government is being warned that it could face legal action over its plan to freeze the salary threshold at which students have to repay their loans at £21,000 a year for the next five years.
In an article for Times Higher Education, Bahram Bekhradnia, president of the highly respected Higher Education Policy Institute, and higher education consultant John Thompson, argue it is ministers’ “preferred option” of changing the repayment terms for students who have already taken out the loans as well as newcomers is “shocking”.
They acknowledge the existing conditions had a “get out” clause in warning that the regulations governing repayments could be amended but add: “Whether this will impress the courts should there be a legal challenge remains to be seen.”
What do the students think? ComRes survey results for commission
University living costs: 32 per cent very concerned, 45 per cent fairly concerned, not very concerned 16 per cent and not all concerned five per cent.
Tuition fees: 36 per cent very concerned, 32 per cent fairly, 21 per cent not very and 10 per cent not at all.
Having to repay loans: 26 per cent very concerned, 32 per cent fairly, 27 per cent not very and 12 per cent not at all.
Poll of 1,017 16 to 18-year-olds.