Student debt

There’s a lesson to be learnt in robbing Peter to pay Paul

A nanosecond after US President Joe Biden announced the partial cancellation of student loans, a collection of interest groups demanded the Australian government do the same.

The government should not comply. Cancelling Australian student loans is unfair, unnecessary, and unlikely to influence the courses that students choose to study.

Let’s start with why it is unfair.

Contrary to the rhetoric of some interest groups, forgiving student debt does not make education ‘free’. As long as academics wish to be paid for their work, education can never be free. The government currently collects around four billion dollars a year from student loan repayments.

If the government forgives graduates’ debts, the average Australian taxpayer (a category that includes low-paid workers who never had the opportunity to attend a university) will have to make up the shortfall.

Taxpayers currently pay part of the interest on student loans, and they also absorb the loss if graduates never earn enough money to repay their loans.

We all benefit from an educated society, so modest taxpayer contributions are acceptable. But income-contingent loans create what economists call ‘moral hazard’ (a willingness to take risks when someone else bears the consequences). Cancelling debts magnifies this moral hazard and adds to the costs taxpayers must absorb.

Universities are the marshalling yards for the gravy train of life. Graduates enter lucrative careers inaccessible without a degree. They also build influential networks at university that help them advance in business and society. Taxing the low-paid in order to cancel the loans of better-paid graduates is highly regressive; it is like taxing beer to subsidise champagne.

Cancelling loans will also add to the money supply stoking the inflationary fire that disproportionally affects lower-paid workers. Finally, cancelling graduate debts makes fools of those who repaid their loans.

Now, let’s turn to why cancelling Australian student debt is unnecessary.

Most American student loans work like mortgages. Graduates must make periodic payments until they repay their debt plus interest. If they lose their jobs or work only part-time, graduates are still liable to make payments. If they default, their credit ratings will be adversely affected, making it difficult for them to finance a car or buy a house.

Australian student loans are fundamentally different. Default is impossible because payments are matched to a graduate’s income. Those who lose their jobs, take time off to have children or earn less than the repayment income threshold ($48,361) have no obligation to repay their loans. Cancelling the loans of graduates who are not required to pay is simply unnecessary.

Some naïve Australian politicians believe that offering ‘free’ education will motivate students to choose specific courses of study. For example, facing a shortage of nurses, the Victorian government offered nursing students ‘scholarships’ that would pay off their student loans. The idea is to encourage more students to study nursing by making their tuition free.

Time will tell if the Victorian strategy works — but if history is a guide, it probably won’t.

When the UK government allowed English universities to increase their fees, some institutions held back, hoping low prices would attract students. These universities quickly discovered their tactic did not work.

Like Australians, English students do not have to pay fees while studying. Loan repayments are not due until years later when students are working.

The delay between incurring the debt and paying it back mutes the influence of prices. The only truly price-sensitive students are international students who are not eligible for student loans and must pay their tuition fees upfront.

Ironically, these students do not seek the cheapest university. They prefer more expensive courses as they view high prices as indicators of high quality.

Most Australian students choose their courses out of interest, not price. If the Victorian government wishes to entice students into studying nursing, it should consider contributing to their living costs while they are learning, rather than paying their loans after they graduate.

In summary, income-contingent loans, like those used in Australia, make access to higher education dependent on brains rather than bankbooks. Cancelling them is unfair, unnecessary, and unlikely to influence course choices.

Of course, students would like to see their loans forgiven. Robbing Peter to pay Paul will always win Paul’s approval.

But cancelling loans will impose a high cost on the economy, antagonise those who have faithfully paid their debts, and violate our egalitarian ideals.

Steven Schwartz is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and a former vice chancellor of three universities.