Posted on behalf of Darragh Flannery (UL) and John Cullinan (NUIG).
The Cassells report was finally published last week with various options for funding higher education outlined. With the dust settled, now may be an appropriate time to take stock of a few important issues. The debate around this topic has largely taken a full state funding approach versus a student loan approach. The student loan scheme suggested as one option within the report is an Income Contingent Loan (ICL) system, whereby graduates borrow for the costs of their education from the State but do not make any repayments towards this debt until they reach a certain income threshold. However, the discussion around this option has been muddied a lot within the debate. There are a variety of student loan systems in operation around the world; some good and some bad. The point of this post is to simply summarise some of the key design parameters within an ICL scheme and highlight the implications of varying these parameters. These have rarely featured in the public debate but can have significant implications for graduates and will thus require deep consideration if an ICL scheme is to be seriously considered.
Firstly, it must be noted that an ICL scheme entails that some students may never pay back any of the debt they owe. For example, if somebody leaves third level education and chooses not to work for the rest of their life, they repay nothing. In this instance, the taxpayer would ultimately foot the cost of this individual’s education. From an efficiency viewpoint this makes sense as it provides a system where there is burden sharing at its core. Students that benefit from third level education through higher earnings pay back some of the cost of that education. Society pays through taking on the default risk of those that do not repay fully or anything at all; this particular point seems to have been completely lost in the debate recently. From an equity viewpoint, an ICL scheme provides free access to higher education at the point of entry to every young person in the country. It has been argued that this is the same with a household mortgage style loan system – the house is free at the point of entry but you pay for it over the next thirty years or so. However, the key difference is that under an ICL system, if an individual makes no repayments due to some spell of unemployment, nothing is repossessed and there is no impact on your future credit worthiness. From both an efficiency and equity viewpoint it can therefore be argued that there is some sense in an ICL system. However, like any change in policy, the devil will be in the detail.
Two separate studies have previously looked at this issue for Ireland, my own ESR paper with Cathal O’Donoghue here and more recent work by Aedín Doris of Maynooth University and Bruce Chapman of Australia National University here. Also, the appendix of the Cassells report presents some sensitivity analysis around certain parameters. While these go into much finer detail around the issue of ICLs, we will simply summarise some of the key parameters and highlight why there are important. These include the debt liability imposed on students, the specific income threshold to be set, the interest rate attached to the loans and the possible capping of repayment burdens.
The first issue that would have to be addressed is the level of debt a student is burdened with for every year they are in higher education. This has to strike a balance between having the ability to provide adequate funding for the third level institutions and not proving extremely burdensome for graduates. This can take the form of a blanket fee for all those attending higher education as outlined in the Cassells report; however, a more efficient way would be to have some variation in this debt across students. This could be linked to the cost of educating the student and/or the potential lifetime earnings from pursing different subject fields. Australia has adopted a system of this type whereby those wishing to study subjects that generally provide a higher return in the labour market such as medicine and dentistry face a slightly higher debt burden compared to those studying in fields such as humanities or nursing.
To be seen as progressive an ICL must have an income repayment threshold that reflects the fact that only those that benefit from third level education should be responsible for some of the cost. The danger of setting the threshold too low is that it places an extra expenditure burden on those graduates that are not earning very much, despite having gone through four years of higher education. Australia has set the threshold at which graduates begin to repay their debt at the average industrial earnings. The Cassells report mentions a lower threshold of the average wage of new graduates; presumably to ensure more graduates pay something towards the cost of their education.
With regard to the interest rate, the level at which this is fixed will help determine both how long it takes for graduates to pay off their debt and the overall state subsidy. An interest rate that is lower than the rate of inflation may significantly increase the subsidy the state provides on the loans by allowing graduates to ‘inflate’ away their debt. If the interest rate is set too high, the debt burden may increase rapidly and lead to longer repayment periods for graduates. A sensible approach would be to either index the interest rate on the loans to the consumer price index or the state cost of borrowing.
Capping the repayment burdens of graduates on an annual basis has seldom arisen in discussion but would form an important part of illustrating the difference between an ICL scheme and personal loans from the banking sector. Such a mechanism would limit the repayment amounts any one graduate may face in a particular year, no matter what their income level is. For example, if a graduate earns well in excess of the repayment threshold of the system, the repayments they make in that year are capped at a certain proportion of their income. Bruce Chapman of Australia National University, the architect of the much referenced Australian ICL system, suggests that this helps to avoid unduly harsh repayment burdens in any given period and could be fixed at around 8-10% of a graduate’s income.
Arguments have been put forward that increased funding for higher education should be provided through increased general taxes, as is seen in some European countries. The Cassells report acknowledges this by outlying two alternative funding options whereby state funding to higher education would be increased significantly and either the student contribution fee would be removed or maintained it at current levels. However, given the suggestion that an additional €600 million euro per annum is needed in the higher education sector to meet the current demographic and quality challenges, it is highly unlikely either of these options is feasible or desired politically.
There are other important issues within an ICL system that deserve more attention than I have scope for here. These include the potential impact of emigration on repayments and whether the higher education grant system is restructured concurrently. However, for the majority of graduates that may be impacted by such a reform the specifics of debt amounts, income thresholds, interest rates and the capping of repayment burdens are of huge importance and require careful consideration by policymakers. They also deserve more consideration in the public debate around higher education financing.