The Herald's editorial this morning will make better reading for the government than all the John Banks stories of late. It comes out in favour of the proposals announced last week to tighten up the Student Loan scheme, opining thus:
More than 40 per cent of the money that the Government puts into tertiary education goes directly to students as allowances, loans and interest subsidies. The average for such spending in OECD countries is close to 18 per cent. That disparity provides a highly relevant context in which to assess changes to both the student loan scheme and student allowances that will be confirmed in the May 24 Budget. The income raised this way will, in the first instance, help to balance the books. But it will also assist in repairing an imbalance that has had serious consequences for the performance of this country's universities.The Tertiary Education Minister, Steven Joyce, identified the problem quickly after taking over the portfolio. Since then, he has tried to claw back the cost by tinkering with the student loan scheme in several ways, not least by recovering more money from borrowers living overseas. But the real problem, and the reason that spending on the scheme has blown out, is, of course, the interest-free nature of the loans. That feature was introduced as an election bribe by the Clark Government in 2005. Last week, Business New Zealand called for it to be ditched. The Prime Minister said, in response, that this would have a dramatic impact on the time it took to repay loans.That is unconvincing. The main impact, in fact, would be to make students less liable to take out loans in the first place, thereby saving the expenditure of millions of taxpayer dollars, some of which are never recovered. And the real reason for inaction stems from the part this extravagant policy played in securing Helen Clark a third term. Ever since, touching it has been deemed political poison.Deprived of the most rational response, Mr Joyce must continue to fiddle. His latest move, confirmed well before the announcement of the Budget after an initial outline of his intention met broad public approval, increases the student loan repayment rate from the current 10 per cent to 12 per cent for those with income over $19,084. Half a million graduates will face steeper repayments.In terms of student allowances, the Government plans to cut costs by tightening the eligibility rules, especially in relation to the definition of income. It also wants to focus allowances on the first years of tertiary study - there will be a four-year cap - and on students who can least afford to study. Such targeting is welcome. Too many allowances are being paid to youngsters whose parents could afford to offer support but, instead, are exploiting income loopholes.
At least the leader writer calls the Labour Party's 2005 interest-free policy for what it really was; an election bribe. Labour came within a whisker of defeat in 2005, and was only saved by two things; the faux outrgae over the Exclusive Brethren members exposing Green Party policy, and the blatant bribe to students of interest-free student loans. That Labour was able to cobble together a government supported by Winston Peters, one of its biggest critics prior to 2005 is now history.
As they Herald notes "touching it has been deemed political poison", and for that reason the John Key-led government has to do what it can around the margins. It is not the ideal scenario at a time when the government is spending far more than it earns, but that is the reality of politics in the MMP environment. With the imminent demise of the Act Party, National has to be pragmatic about any change that it institutes.
As we noted on Saturday in our piece on loan repayments, the changes that have been proposed are modest. Critics have described the increase in repayment rates as a tax, but it is anything but. We must not lose sight of the fact that the government invests heavily in the future of our young people, but the scheme is called the Student Loan scheme for good reason; the money is loaned, not gifted, and the country has an expectation of repayment as quickly as possible.