ONS looks at reclassifying student loans

27 Apr 18

The Office for National Statistics has begun work to look at reclassifying students loans so they are treated in a unique way in the national accounts.

The move follows a Treasury select committee recommendation in February that student loans should be treated differently as the usual expectation is loans, or “financial assets”, are paid back.

In recent years the portion of student loans being cancelled or written off has been rising, the ONS noted on Tuesday

A reclassification could impact on public sector net borrowing but not public sector net debt, the statistics authority added.  

“Student loans in the UK are different from typical loans,” the ONS said.

“Notably, they have a high degree of contingency in that repayments are conditional on subsequent income and under certain conditions the loan obligation itself may be cancelled.”

The Treasury select committee, in its February report, also suggested the ONS look at whether a portion of the loan “should, in substance, be classed as a grant”.

The ONS currently applies international standards to the UK’s public sector finances, which includes student loans.

These standards are “clear”, the ONS said, but the guidance around recording of financial assets with a “significant expected loss” are less so, and this makes student loans subject to interpretation.

The ONS said: “We have begun work with international agencies and other National Statistic Offices.

“This is a complex topic that could have potential implications for all countries with income-contingent loans.

Public sector net borrowing could be affected along with public sector net financial liabilities by the move, the ONS pointed out, as these measures are affected by interest that is accrued but not paid and loan cancellations.

The outstanding balance for student loans in England has increased every year since 2011, and the most recent figures from 2017 showed it stood at £89.3bn, according to the Student Loans Company.

The ONS also released figures on Tuesday showing that public sector net borrowing had fallen to its lowest level since March 2007, decreasing by £3.5bn to £42.6bn in the latest financial year (April 2017 to March 2018), compared with the previous financial year.

The Office for Budget Responsibility projected that public sector net borrowing would be £45.2bn from April 2017 to March 2018 - £2.6bn more than the provisional estimate of £42.6bn.

  • Vivienne Russell

    Vivienne Russell is managing editor of Public Finance magazine and publicfinance.co.uk

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