In Brief

Tuition fees: Is UK student debt really £100bn?

Jeremy Corbyn won't commit to writing off student debt, and admits he doesn't even know how much is owed

Jeremy Corbyn has been accused by senior Conservatives of misleading students by pledging to "deal with" the burden of existing student debt.

"We never said we would completely abolish [outstanding debt] because we were unaware of the size of it", the labour leader told Andrew Marr on Sunday.

So what is "the size of it"? How much do students in the UK collectively owe? And if more than two-thirds of students are expected to repay only a portion of their loan, how much can the government realistically expect to collect?

The figures

According to The Student Loans Company (SLC), outstanding debt from UK student loans now sits at £100.5bn - an increase of 16.6 per cent from 2016 and more than double the balance in 2012, when the cap on tuition fees rose to £9,000 per year.   

The SLC also reports that the average debt per student is £32,220.

Unpicking the stats

The figures quoted by the SLC are inclusive of maintenance costs and relate to the whole of the UK - in England, the outstanding balance of student debt is £89.3bn.

The SLC's calculation of debt per student also includes students from historic cohorts, when tuition fees were much lower. The figure rises to more than £50,000 for students embarking on a degree from 2017, says the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

And while the figure of £100.5bn is eye-watering, this does not include the amount of money the government currently writes off from unpaid loans (due to both graduates' low earnings and the lapse of time), says the BBC

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has calculated that more than two-thirds of students are expected never to repay the entirety of their loans.

This has prompted some analysts to debunk the concept of student debt. A "graduate contribution system" is a more accurate description, says Martin Lewis of moneysavingexpert.com.  

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