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DfE gets over £13.5billion extra for 2020/21 loan impairments

February 25, 2021

The UK government published its “supplementary estimates” for 2020/21 yesterday. These allocate additional budgetary resources to departments.

Education has been given an extra £13.531 billion to cover the estimated losses on student loans issued in the year (April 2020-March 2021) and the likely downwards revisions to the value of already existing loans. The department had an original allowance of roughly £4billion, but was determined by the last comprehensive spending review and had not been revised since Theresa May’s decision to increase the loan repayment threshold in 2017.

Last year, an additional £12billion was granted and most was used. (These allocations are not additional cash, but the formal recognition that the cash issued in the form of loans is going to generate much lower returns than originally anticipated).

The estimated non-repayment on new loans was thought to be in the region of 55%. That is, for every £ loaned, the treasury expected the equivalent of c. 45p in return: in 2019/20, £17.6billion of new loans were issued, but only around £8billion in net present value is projected to be repaid. (Note that this percentage figure – “the RAB” – is often confused with a measure of how many borrowers ultimately clear their loan balances, i.e. those who repay the equivalent of 100p or more).

When the new higher fees came in, the loss on loans was projected to be in the region of 30p in the £. That is, 70p would be repaid. A raft of policy changes and modelling errors along with the impact of austerity on graduate earnings has dramatically increased the costs; recent accounting changes have meant that those costs now show up in the headline figures that count. (The loan scheme was never designed to be self-financing, but no one set out to develop a scheme with this current level of subsidy. The £4billion in the original budget for 2020/21 reflects the much earlier aim of “incentivising” the department responsible for loans to get the estimated non-repayment closer to 30-35%).

The pandemic has made things a lot worse for earnings and livelihoods. But the HE sector has in recent months also been positioned to take a hit when the chancellor looks to review spending in the Autumn. The obvious place to look is initial outlay and so I would expect to a clamp down on undergraduate fee levels (without any offsetting increase in tuition grant).

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