Education & Family

Average UK student debts 'could hit £53,000'

Student protest against tuition fees
Image caption The decision to raise tuition fees in England sparked angry street protests

Average debts may reach £53,000 for UK students starting in 2012 - double the figure for 2011 - an annual survey suggests.

The Push university guide said average annual debts had risen 6.4% in the past year - more than inflation - to £5,680.

Researchers interviewed 2,800 students and based the projection on an average course length of 3.4 years.

Tuition fees in England will rise in 2012, but ministers say students should not be put off for financial reasons.

The survey is published a week before A-level pupils are due to receive their results, with heavy competition expected for remaining university places as prospective students seek to avoid the fees increase.

Projected rise

Push researchers looked at all the debts, apart from mortgages, accrued by students at different stages of study around the UK, including some on longer courses such as medicine, and some postgraduates.

They then used the rate at which debts have increased in the past to project future rises, as well as factoring in the almost tripling of tuition fees in England to a maximum of £9,000 from 2012.

The average predicted debt on leaving university for UK students is £26,100 for those starting in 2011, rising to £53,400 for 2012 entrants.

For students in England, the projected average is £59,100, with the difference largely due to the fact that Scottish students do not have to pay tuition fees and increases for Welsh students' will be covered by government subsidies.

The prediction assumes average tuition fees in England of £8,630 per year.

This takes into account of bursaries and fee waivers already announced, although some universities may still offer further student support.

Economic climate

Push publisher Johnny Rich said he thought the projection had an error margin of about 10%, and was higher than he had expected.

This was partly because debts had risen faster than inflation in recent years, he said.

This may be the result of students struggling to find part-time and temporary jobs because of the economic climate, as well as rising costs of expenses, such as travel and energy, he said.

Mr Rich said students may also be struggling to control their spending in the face of rising debts.

"The moment you start talking about such massive debts people stop being so careful... they realise they're in a deep hole and small amounts of effort won't dig them out again," he said.

But he maintained that prospective 2012 students "shouldn't be put off", as "the debt will not be a normal debt".

Regional variations

Graduates will have to pay back their loans only once they start earning £21,000, and outstanding debt will be written off after 30 years.

"If it's going to be a good option because it's going to lead you to a more rewarding career - a better paid career - then go for it," he said.

However, Mr Rich said the current pattern was likely to continue, where one-quarter of student debt is held outside the student loans system.

This is mostly borrowed from family members, but nearly 7% is owed to banks and on credit cards.

According to the survey, average annual debt accrued by students currently at university varies widely across the UK, from £2,025 in Scotland to £6,231 in Wales.

Push said opportunities for paid work for students in Wales "appear to have dried up".

Most of the universities where students had the largest debts were in London.

Mr Rich said the size of debt meant it was increasingly important that students chose their university and course carefully.

"Basically you have one shot at this - you can return later in life, but it's a very expensive option. Get it right first time," he said.

'Lower repayments'

A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokesman said no-one should be put off going to university for financial reasons.

BIS says the majority of students will not pay £9,000 for their tuition, no first time undergraduate will have to pay up-front costs, and there is also a more generous package of financial support available, including higher living-cost grants, fee waivers and scholarships.

Ministers also point out that graduates will make lower monthly repayments than they do under the current system.

University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Sally Hunt said: "Average student debt is already staggeringly high and is now set to get much worse."

National Union of Students president Liam Burns raised concerns about the extent to which students were using bank and credit card loans.

"The fact that the government thinks it's OK to hang an amount of debt equivalent to a small mortgage over someone's head while they study is one thing, but leaving young people reliant on commercial credit just to stay in education is scandalous," he said.

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