Dr Mary Canning is a former Lead Education Specialist in the World Bank, Washington DC and a current member of the Higher Education Authority In Ireland. This article was written as a contribution to the debate taking place in Ireland today on the introduction of tuition fees in public universities in here country. The views expressed here are solely her own. Dr Mary Canning é uma ex-especialista em educação do Banco Mundial, e membro, atualmente, da Autoridade Nacional de Educação Superior da Irlanda. Este artigo foi escrito como contribuição para o debate que está ocorrendo hoje na Irlanda a propósito da introdução de pagamento nas universidades públicas de seu país. Os pontos de vista deste artigo são dela somente, e não das instituições de que fez ou faz parte.
The search for ways to cut public expenditure in the face of economic recession could not have come at a worse time for university managers, already worried about funding. Unsurprisingly, the possible reintroduction of university tuition fees has become a matter of public debate.
The purpose of this article is not to join in this debate, but to ensure that it is properly informed. Already, misleading information is circulating about the so-called “Australian model” of tuition fees financed by student loans, including a recent letter to the Irish Times. The core design of the Australian model, which has had over 2 million student users, is no longer politically controversial and has recently been extended to include technical colleges.
But the Australian example is only one of many student loan schemes. A recent OECD publication describes publicly financed or guaranteed loan schemes operating in 18 out of the 30 OECD countries in 2004/ 5 (the latest available year for comparative data).
Student loan schemes are designed to ensure that no tuition fees need be paid until after graduation. Unless fee systems are accompanied by such a loan system, there is a danger that students from disadvantaged families will be denied access to higher education. For the least well-off, there should also be a complementary package of means-tested grants. It has been well established that in Australia the simultaneous introduction of tuition fees and a system of student support relying primarily on loans did not reduce the participation of disadvantaged students in tertiary education.
Most of the 18 countries in the OECD list have “mortgage-style” loans. These are to be repaid, with interest, after a fixed period of time. A government guarantee enables the loans to be offered at much lower interest rates and to be repaid over a much longer period than purely private loans. But the guarantee also weakens a lender’s interest in collecting repayment due, and unlike mortgages or cars, there is an absence of collateral to provide security. Default rates may consequently be very high. In the early 1990s, default rates on student loans guaranteed by the US government were over 20%, though they have subsequently fallen to about 5%.
Alternatively, it is possible to collect repayment through the income tax system. This has the additional advantage that repayment obligations can be made to vary with taxable income–these are known as “income-contingent” loans. Such loans are less risky for students, because they will not be expected to keep up repayments if they leave the labour market for reasons of illness, disability, unemployment or maternity. Moreover repayment requirements are likely to be low in the early years of a career. They will also be lower in relatively low-paid public sector occupations, such as teaching or nursing, and this may encourage students to enter these professions to the benefit of the broader community.
Repayment obligations end when the loan amount is fully paid. The Australian scheme rewards early repayment by a reduction in the amount due. There is often a maximum period of potential obligation (in Britain, 25 years) after which the remainder of the debt is forgiven.
The total amount to be repaid depends crucially on the level of interest rates, and also whether these are computed from the time that the loan is taken out or at graduation. It has been well established that all non-means tested public subsidies to students worsen inequality, since they benefit disproportionately students from better-off families who will then go on to enjoy above-average incomes themselves. To minimise the degree of subsidy, most economists would suggest using interest rates at least equal to the cost of government borrowing.
This, however, has proved politically difficult to introduce or sustain. For example, the income-contingent scheme in New Zealand used government borrowing rates for several years, but political pressures have now eliminated interest altogether for graduates who continue to reside in the country. Australia and the UK index loan amounts to the rate of inflation, but charge no additional interest.
Loans can include an amount for living expenses. In Sweden, where there are no tuition fees or means-testing, 83% of students borrowed for living expenses in 2004/5. In the UK and New Zealand, the maximum permissible amount depends on means-testing. In 2005, nearly 80% of UK domestic students who graduated were carrying debt, which averaged the approximate equivalent of € 11,700; in New Zealand it was 57% of domestic students, whose debt averaged € 12,600.
Income-contingent repayment schemes imply a minimum income threshold before repayment becomes obligatory. The minimum is the equivalent of € 23,700 in Australia, € 19000 in the UK and only € 8500 in New Zealand. Repayment rates were 9% of income above the threshold in the UK and 10% in New Zealand, but increasing gradually from 4% to a maximum of 8% in Australia.
Some debt will inevitably be unpaid. In Australia, this is mainly because a recipient has died or has had income below the threshold for many years. Only a small amount of unpaid debt has been due to graduates’ leaving the Australian tax jurisdiction. Australia is currently looking at the possibility of inter-governmental agreements (as exist for pensions).
Loan schemes cannot be established overnight. They require technical and institutional analysis to create country-specific policies. The Australian experience suggests that when up and running, administrative costs can be kept down to less than 3% of debt repayments.
In Ireland, the proposed National Education Strategy will provide an opportunity to review the whole system of student support including the current grants system and the possible introduction of income contingent loans.