In all of the furore surrounding the university tuition fees and student loans system, there has been relatively little discussion over perhaps the most consequential element of the system: the replacement of maintenance grants with maintenance loans.
Previously free at the point of access, the change essentially means that living cost allowances to students are now subject to the same repayment system and rules as the tuition fee loan system.
Student debt, maintenance loans included, is not like other debt.
Graduates will have to pay 9% of their income above £21,000 per year. Soon, payments won’t have to begin until a graduate is earning £25,000 per year. While this change would initially appear to saddle the least advantaged in society with the most debt (and burden), the reality of the situation is more nuanced.
Ultimately, criticism that centres around the volume of debt rather than repayments will always be flawed as the repayments are means tested. The minimum repayment threshold will ensure that the greatest burden will be borne by the richest graduates.
The burden of additional student debt will therefore fall on those who have, yes, comes from a lower income background, but crucially have begun to earn at a higher rate as a result of their degree.
We don’t give high earners tax breaks based on their economic background, so why should student loan repayments be lowered on high earners on the basis of economic background? Especially since around 65% of those who would receive the full maintenance grant would not pay more under the system of maintenance loans in the first place.
At its core, the student loan system (including maintenance loans) ensures that those who benefit from their degrees the most pay the most into the system. Accordingly, those who benefit the least pay less…if any at all. Economic background is irrelevant.
The crux of this misunderstanding is that student debt, maintenance loans included, is not like other debt. No other kind of debt waits to make sure that you’re earning enough before demanding repayments and stops its demands when your earnings fall below. No other kind of debt vanishes after thirty years of repayments beginning no matter how little has been paid.
The replacement of maintenance grants with maintenance loans, in conjunction with the wider student loan system is, counterintuitively, a progressive step that places no additional burden on the poorest graduates.