Study Now, Pay Later? Please Read the Terms and Conditions.

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.

World university rankings

This is one way to try to boost your position in the world university rankings.

Another would be to shift admittedly very scarce resources from administrative to frontline staff, so as to keep class sizes under control; remember that the university’s core function was always to provide an excellent undergraduate education, and value those members of staff whose dedication made that possible; and value the outputs of research, instead of the financial inputs into it.

Tom Kettle, 1880 – 1916

In 1909 Tom Kettle was appointed the first Professor of the National Economics of Ireland at University College, Dublin.
He was in Belgium running arms for the National Volunteers when the war broke out in 1914. What he perceived as the barbaric Prussian assault on European civilization prompted him to apply for a commission with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, which he was awarded in 1916.
He was killed in action at Ginchy (Picardy) during the Battle of the Somme on 9th September 1916.
In the spring of 2006 the late Gerry Barry, the RTÉ broadcaster, organized a public meeting (in the former House of Lords chamber at College Green) to mark the 90th anniversary of Kettle’s death. He asked me to contribute a piece on Kettle’s work as an economist.
Ten years on, and a century after Kettle’s death, I thought readers might be interested in the brief essay I wrote for the occasion.

More details of his life are available in the excellent Wikipedia article on him:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Kettle.

Garret FitzGerald Lecture and Autumn School

UCD College of Social Sciences and Law will host the Garret FitzGerald Lecture and Autumn School on Monday 19th October, in the UCD Sutherland School of Law. The daytime School (from midday) will focus on the significance of the social sciences. The evening Lecture will be delivered by Professor Cass R Sunstein,Harvard Law School, on the theme ‘Is Behavioural Science Compatible with Democracy?’. More details and bookings here.

Save the Date: September 30 Conference on Higher Education Funding in Maynooth

On Wednesday, September 30, we are holding a one-day conference on ‘Higher Education Funding: Drawing on the International Experience’ in Maynooth.

The context for this conference is the debate on how to fund higher education in Ireland. In 2014, the Minister for Education established an Expert Group on Future Funding for Higher Education, and the motivation for the conference is to inform the discussion about the choice of funding options available; we have a particular interest in the interaction between funding mechanisms and differential access to higher education along socioeconomic lines.

International speakers include Sara Goldrick-Rab of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has written extensively on the issue of higher education funding in the US; Claire Crawford of Warwick University and the IFS, who has written several detailed analyses of the UK system; and Bruce Chapman of the Australian National University, whose name is particularly associated with income-contingent student loans, both in terms of his academic research and his role as policy advisor to many governments.

Local speakers include Rory O’Donnell of NESC and Delma Byrne of Maynooth University.

The conference will be open to all. I’ll post further details here in the coming weeks.

Update: Full details are now available here.

Economics, new and improved

Many readers of Irish Economy are likely to be aware of a project to rethink the teaching of Economics, linked to the Institute for New Economic Thinking, and organised by a committee chaired by Professor Wendy Carlin of UCL. Some people associated with this blog, including Kevin O’Rourke, are also involved in this work.

A beta digital textbook (‘The Economy’) has very recently been put online and there is a useful explanatory video and a blog.

On my preliminary and (so far) partial reading of ‘The Economy’, it achieves its goal of being strikingly different to the standard first-year textbook. It places at the centre of the story familiar ideas that students and the public expect to feature in Economics and understand better through Economics, including capitalism, technology, living standards, the environment, institutions, and property rights before turning to the more abstract aspects of microeconomics. All the bells and whistles of digital publication are there too including hyperlinks to many of the readings. And of course it’s all freely available. The organisers are seeking user (student and faculty) feedback via a Facebook page and it seems there is supplementary material to follow in due course.