Lessons in debt…..

I remember when I got my first credit card. I acquired it when I opened my first bank account as a student. The credit limit was £100, I used it sparingly, and I always paid back the full amount. Of course in those days students received a grant and I was able to deposit mine in a building society account and gain some additional income as the grant balance ran down over the course of a term (those were the days when savers also received a decent rate of interest!).

The upshot of all this was that I was able to emerge debt free from my student days, and save sufficient money to put down a deposit on a flat. A mortgage was therefore my first real experience of debt. However the systems in place at that time regarding multiples of income and percentage of loan to value meant that it was manageable and affordable. I continued to pay back my credit cards on time. Like my parents I believed that debt was to be used sparingly, was only for sensible reasons, and should be comfortably paid back within a reasonable period.

The reason for the above wave of nostalgia is Lord Browne’s review of higher education funding which was published last week. This raised the prospect of students emerging from higher education with a level of debt that would have been unimaginable to my younger self. On top of this they will probably have an overdraft, credit card borrowings, a car loan and other debts to which they will then be expected to add a mortgage.

The rise of debt fuelled consumption by both individuals and government is blamed by many for the economic struggles that we now face. And yet are we really surprised at this, given that young people are effectively educated to believe that a mountain of debt is a fact of life, and that paying it back is something that will have to wait until resources allow?

There is no easy answer to this. Higher education has reached the stage where it is impossible to fund it without student contribution. Too many students and too many courses are spreading resources far too thinly. And yet I can’t help thinking burdening young people with this level of debt is sending out the wrong message, potentially discouraging able students, and thus storing up even more problems for the future.

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