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Why 17 December will be a crucial day for UK higher education - HEPI
The 17th day of December is a fairly momentous day in history. According to a website called infoplease, France first recognised America then, the first heavier-than-air plane was flown by the Wright brothers and NAFTA was signed. A different website records it as the day of the first ever heart, lung and liver transplant, at Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire. But it is 17 December 2018 that is likely to go down as a momentous day for UK higher education because it is the day the independent Office for National Statistics (ONS) will opine on whether and how student loans will appear in the national accounts – and so in the data on the scale of the deficit by which politicians (especially centre-right politicians) like to be judged when assessing their fiscal responsibility. As the Office for National Statistics is independent, there will be nothing the new Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah’s replacement, will be able to do about it. There are various options (including no change) but the current methodology of keeping both tuition fee loans and maintenance loans off the books – and even including interest on the loans as income which reduces the deficit – might change significantly. This could have profound consequences. In a HEPI blog back in August, I pointed out that people who want the ONS to put egg on Ministers’ faces by putting some of all of the loans back on the national books should be careful what they wish for: it could lead to less funding per student and / or tougher student loan repayment terms. And in our recent paper on Wales, we hinted at to how a change in the accounting rules poses a potential threat to policy …