How pensioners can get a degree 'for free'

Jess Bown
It's never to late to graduate
It's never to late to graduate

It's never too late to keep learning. That's why thousands of pensioners enroll on university degree courses every year.

Older student numbers have dropped significantly over the last 10 years, though.

See also: Why you shouldn't ignore the workplace pension

See also: Retirement: Will your money run out before you die?

In 2007, there were 40,920 students aged 60 and over enrolled on university courses across the country.

By last year, however, there were just 19,030 undergraduate and postgraduate students registered in this age group.

The introduction of tuition fees costing up to almost £28,000 over a three-year course is likely to be one reason for this.

But many pensioners on lower incomes can avoid paying tuition fees altogether - thanks to a little-known loophole in the complex Student Loans system. And that means they can take a degree "for free".

How does it work?

Like students of all ages, pensioners can borrow the money to cover their tuition fees by taking out a Tuition Fee Loan.

Loans of this kind are designed to cover the course fees - which can be up to £9,250 a year - exactly, and are paid directly to the university concerned.

And unlike other loans offered by banks and lenders, they only have to be paid back once the student's annual earnings exceed £21,000, or £25,000 from April next year.

For pensioners whose retirement incomes do not exceed this amount - that's the huge majority in case you were wondering - this means that the loans never have to be repaid.

Is it fair to do this?

Playing the system this way is not for everyone, of course.

Whether or not you feel it is acceptable is likely to depend on both your moral compass and how you feel about tuition fees, which are often waived for Scottish and Northern Irish students.

One middle way is to ease your conscience by paying off what you can when the time comes.

Some pensioners who take degrees choose to voluntarily pay off at least part of their loans, despite not being forced to by the rules.

Either way, it's worth knowing about this loophole if the idea of taking a degree in later life appeals - especially if the financial strain of becoming a student was the main thing holding you back.