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IFS: interest rates could put students off university

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The Institute for Fiscal Studies is calling on the government to urgently adjust the way the interest rate cap operates on student loans to avoid a significant spike in September.

English and Welsh graduates who took out a student loan from 2012 onwards are in for a rollercoaster ride on student loan interest rates in the coming years, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has reported. This interest rate rollercoaster will cause problems, including putting off prospective students from furthering their education, said the IFS.

“The way the interest rate cap currently operates disadvantages borrowers with falling debt balances for no good reason. Perhaps more importantly, sky-high interest rates may put some prospective students off going to university; some graduates will likely feel compelled to pay off their loans even when this has no benefit for them,” said the IFS.

The reading for RPI inflation means that the maximum interest rate, which is charged to current students and graduates earning more than £49,130, will rise from its current level of 4.5% to an eye-watering 12% for half a year unless policy changes (the interest rates for low earners will rise from 1.5% to 9%).

According to the IFS, this means that with a typical loan balance of around £50,000, a high-earning recent graduate would incur around £3,000 in interest over six months – more than even someone earning three times the median salary for recent graduates would usually repay during that time.

The maximum student loan interest rate is then likely to fall to around 7% in March 2023 and fluctuate between 7 and 9% for a year and a half; in September 2024, it is then predicted to fall to around 0% before rising again to around 5% in March 2025.

Why are interest rates on student loans rising so fast?

These wild swings in interest rates will arise from the combination of high inflation and an interest rate cap that takes half a year to come into operation, explains the IFS.

Without the cap, maximum interest rates would be 12% throughout the 2022/23 academic year and around 13% in 2023/24. While interest rates affect all borrowers’ loan balances, they only affect actual repayments for the typically high-earning graduates that will pay off their loans.

‘Unless the government changes the way student loan interest is determined, there will be wild swings in the interest rate over the next three years,” said Ben Waltmann, Senior Research Economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

“The maximum rate will reach an eye-watering level of 12% between September 2022 and February 2023 and a low of around zero between September 2024 and March 2025,” said Waltmann.

There is no good economic reason for this. Interest rates on student loans should be low and stable, reflecting the government’s own cost of borrowing. The government urgently needs to adjust the way the interest rate cap operates to avoid a significant spike in September.

Ben Waltmann, Senior Research Economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies

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