Keane Duncan: Debt terrifies today’s students – for no reason

Shouldn't students be worried about tuition fee debts?
Shouldn't students be worried about tuition fee debts?
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RIPPING out the half-opened envelope wedged at the back of a drawer and scouring down the printed invoice, the true scale of my debt crisis was laid bare – £38,000 and rising.

Every month this hefty mountain grows bigger, with £150 lumps of interest vastly outstripping my repayments and slashing any hope of taming my arrears.

Confronted with the sheer scale of my sky-rocketing debt for the first time, you might expect panic to set in. But I was surprisingly relaxed, unfazed by my apparent crisis.

Because this is a “debt” like no other. In fact, it is not really debt at all.

My lender is the Student Loans Company. Misleadingly titled a “company”, it is much better described on its website as a “non-profit making, government-owned organisation”.

It should, quite rightfully, be recognised as the most generous, and most unusual, creditor in Britain.

My repayments start if I earn over £21,000 a year. The amount paid rises in proportion to my earnings – a flat nine per cent of everything over that threshold, deducted automatically.

No risk of default, no chance of a bailiff arriving at the door, no menacing demand letters.

In reality, the system serves more as an extra income tax than a traditional debt repayment. I pay if, and only if, I am able to.

And in 30 years, any outstanding balance will be written off – the whole balance completely forgotten, even if not a single penny has been paid back.

It means that for everyone, except the very highest earning graduates, the rapidly-accruing above-inflation interest rates are an irrelevance.

With an estimated 70 per cent already unlikely to ever finish repaying their loans, “interest” in reality only serves to make an already massive bill even less likely to be paid off in full.

That is why I could not care less about my student debt. And why it remained buried, discarded and forgotten at the bottom of a drawer, and my mind, over two years after my graduation.

But “debt”, “company” and “interest” are not just innocent misnomers. They are dangerously skewing the student fees debate, actively stoking the political fire and sending a damaging chill down students’ spines.

Language matters and the spectre of “debt” risks scaring a whole generation of would-be graduates.

Sixth-form student turned Labour parliamentary candidate Eli Aldridge, then 18, recounted her fears ahead of the 2015 General Election: “Those of us who thought maybe one day we might want to go to university suddenly wondered how on earth we, or our parents, would ever be able to afford it.”

A quick scout down the online forum Student Room shows Eli is not alone, with sixth-formers up and down Britain shuddering at the unknown implications of a debt mountain as big as, or bigger than, mine.

“My dream is over. I can’t afford this,” posted one. “RIP this generation. A life of debt and insecurity,” posted another.

But is there really any wonder our students are scared stiff?

When the ‘voice of students’, NUS president Shakira Martin, used a stint on Channel 4 News to label fees a “massive barrier” to the disadvantaged rather than to reassure, it is easy to see why.

And when Jeremy Corbyn pledged to lift the “debt cloud” from hundreds of thousands of young people, it is no surprise they followed.

Yet scare stories hinged on downright inaccuracies are not confined to the left of British politics.

Kicking off a year-long review into tuition fees in February, even Theresa May resorted to the popular myth that a university education is out of reach.

English students, she said, face “one of the most expensive” tuition systems in the world. She claimed it is a system that increasingly “leaves students from the lowest-income households bearing the highest levels of debt”.

True, today’s students face the prospect of a debt even bigger than mine – a whopping £57,000 on average for those from the poorest families.

But this headline figure evokes fear, masks reality and distracts from a crucial fact.

With no upfront fees, generous living cost loans and manageable repayments, one thing is undeniable: Our world-class universities are truly affordable for all.

The tuition fees system is not perfect. Making it work is not going to be easy. But busting myths, misconceptions and misunderstandings must be Mrs May’s first task if she wants to tackle the last and only barrier to education today.

Two years into my post-university life, students should be reassured by my indifference. Take comfort in my calm collectedness. “Debt” is the very least of your worries. The only thing left to fear is fear itself.

Keane Duncan, 23, is a 
University of York graduate. He is the youngest ever member of North Yorkshire County Council.