Government restarts privatisation of £12 billion student loan book

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The starting pistol has been fired on the privatisation of the student loan book, with the Government vowing to sell it off for £12 billion by 2021.

The move will begin with the sale of the 2002/06 loan book, which had a face value of £4 billion at the end of the 2014/15 financial year.

However, a string of factors - including the likelihood that some student loans will not be repaid in full - means the money recouped from the sale will be lower than the face value.

Plans to privatise the vast debt pile were previously called off by then Business Secretary Vince Cable in 2014, after deciding that it would not reduce public sector debt by as much as originally thought.

A Department for Education (DfE) spokeswoman said on Monday that an initial value for money assessment has been carried out and that now was a good time to restart the sale.

The Government insisted that the move will not impact on former students who hold the loans, with controls put in place to ensure that terms are not changed. 

Borrowers will still deal with the HMRC and Student Loans company, a spokeswoman said.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Gauke said: "The Autumn Statement reaffirmed our commitment to the sale of the student loan book if market conditions were favourable and I'm pleased the timing is now right to start the process. This sale makes sense for taxpayers and will play an important contribution in our work to repair the public finances."

Former chancellor George Osborne said in 2013, when the sell-off was first put forward, that the proceeds would help fund more students studying for a degree, as well as control public sector debt.

UK Government Investments has begun searching for buyers to snap up the pre-2012 English student loan book through a series of sales before the end of the 2020/21 financial year.

Chancellor Philip Hammond is searching for ways to shore up the public finances in the face of ballooning public sector debt, which reached 86.2% of gross domestic product in December.

Sale of the student loan book would be structured through a securitisation to attract an array of different investor groups, including pension funds, insurers and asset managers.

It is expected to take several months to complete and would depend on "market conditions", the Government added.

A union leader accused the government of pulling an "ugly move" on students.

Sorana Vieru, vice president for higher education at the National Union of Students (NUS), said: "The Government are pulling yet another ugly move on students. The selling off of tranches of the student loan book to the highest bidder for less than it's worth is economic illiteracy. It doesn't just penalise students and graduates, it is taking money from the public purse which could and should be spent on services over the long term."

"Selling the loan book to investors is privatisation through the back door. It is outrageous that bankers will profit off the backs of graduates who took out loans because they had no other option.

"The Government wants to sell our education on the cheap and this is only the first step. If it becomes the norm for student loans to be sold to private investors, rather than held by government, it will be all the more tempting for governments to subject future students to extortionate interest, commercial terms and conditions and the raising of the repayment threshold, making loans even more attractive to private interests, but all the harder for new graduates to economically contribute to society."

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) said in 2014 that as long as student loans were sold at a "fair" value, the expected return to the Government at the point of sale would be zero - effectively that the sale price would be equal to the present value of lost future repayments.

Today's announcement comes after the Government said last week that it had reduced its stake in Lloyds Banking Group to less than 5%. All proceeds from the sale will be used to reduce the national debt.

Mr Hammond has ditched his predecessor's target of balancing the books by 2020, pledging instead to put the public finances back in the black ''as early as possible'' in the next Parliament, as part of a new draft Charter for Budget Responsibility outlined in the Autumn Statement.

The Chancellor is on course to meet fresh borrowing targets outlined by the OBR in the Autumn Statement after the budget deficit fell in December and revised figures for November showed the public finances finished 2016 in better shape than first thought.

It was revealed last month that Government borrowing for the financial year to date - April to December - recorded a 14.3% drop to £63.8 billion, compared with the same nine months in 2015.