Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The government is working on a proposal to allow universities to buy the loan book of their own graduates. While graduates of universities that opted into this scheme would continue to pay back their loans through the tax system, that part of the student loans company's assets that comprises loans made to students and graduates of a given university would be sold back to the university itself. The student loans company might expect to get a better price for this asset from the university than from other investors because the university can do things to maximise the probability with which loans are fully repaid. In other words, the university would be incentivised to optimise the labour market experience of its graduates.

An immediate issue concerns the ability of universities to afford to buy the loan book. Over a very short time, the cost associated with the loan book would swamp the finances of a typical institution. But it would be possible for institutions to borrow from the financial sector to fund their purchases - and it is reported that a large financial investor is already interested in the scheme.

Several 'top' universities are said to back this proposal. The scheme certainly does have some attractive features. One is that it shifts the risk associated with the loans system from the government onto the universities - and that is a good thing because the universities are positioned to mitigate tha extra risk by enhancing their careers support, making their courses more relvant to the needs of the labour market, and so on. Where exactly the risk resides will depend on the price at which a loan book is sold, but the likelihood is that it would be sold at a higher price under this system than under the current system.

There are two ways in which this type of scheme could work out in practice. One would be for some universities to opt into the scheme while others opt out. Amongst the former group, we would expect to see a response to incentives such that these universities' graduates become more employable - a clear gain. The value of the loan book of the second group of universities would, however, fall as adverse selection ensures that these are the universities whose graduates are least likely to repay loans in full. By reducing the averaging out effect of pooling loans across all universities, some degree of toxicity is thus introduced into the loan books of the universities that do not opt into the scheme. If employers then use this as a signal that these universities' graduates are less employable than others, the costs thus imposed could offset the benefits associated with the other universities' response to incentives.

So allowing universities to opt in or out of the scheme may not work, simply because all universities feel that they have to opt in. What if this were to happen? Selling each university its part of the loan book at a given price per £ loaned would penalise universities whose graduates are less successful in the labour market. In effect, as such graduates pay back less of their loans and as the universities would receive less net income, this would be similar to - though considerably more complicated than - a system in which universities whose graduates are less successful have to charge lower fees. All institutions would be incentivised to improve the labour market performance of their graduates, since by doing so they could recover more of the loans on the books.

The key issue that needs to be addressed in higher education finance is the long term sustainability of the funding model. The resource accounting and budgeting (RAB) charge - that part of the student loan book that will not be paid off - has risen to 45%, highlighting this concern. The proposed changes may do something to help. The present system has encouraged all institutions to charge the maximum tuition fee, and this has not encouraged discipline on costs. The proposed system, by way of contrast, might encourage universities whose graduates are less successful to reduce their costs.

So, while much of the detail remains to be worked out, the new proposals - inasmuch as they might lead to something better than we have at present - merit a cautious welcome. They promise to buy an increase in efficiency at the cost of increased complexity. Hopefully the exchange will be a beneficial one, but the proof of that pudding will be in the eating.