University staff have urged the new Secretary of State for Education to be a ‘voice for students’ and to press the Chancellor to halt plans to hit more students with loan repayments as the student loan debt pile hits £141bn. The call comes ahead of the Treasury’s spending review.

In a letter to Nadhim Zahawi, the University and College Union (UCU) says any move to lower the salary threshold at which students repay would be ‘regressive’ and would risk putting off ‘less privileged students’ from entering higher education.

Reportedly, the Treasury wants to lower the salary threshold to reduce its exposure to the £141bn of student debt. The Augar review, a government commissioned review of post-18 education in England, recommended a decrease to £23,000. Loans are currently written off after 30 years with only 12% of graduates expected to repay them in full. Those who started university in England in or after October 2012 have an interest rate of 4.1% applied to their loans, higher than most mortgages.

UCU’s letter says the plans to lower the salary threshold would ‘make a bad situation worse’, hitting the pay packets of lower earning graduates, forcing them into high long term payments, and that now is the time to move away from the tuition fee system and towards a public funding model.

The union, representing over 75k university staff, has also warned the Secretary of State that tuition fee reductions proposed in the Augur review would represent the ‘worst of all worlds’, leaving students still graduating with ‘significant debt’, whilst causing institutional income to fall, affecting the quality of courses on offer.

In its letter, the union also criticised the Westminster government’s 50% cut to the high-cost grant funding for creative arts subjects, saying the ‘short-sighted’ decision must be reversed.

The letter warns the government against funding its Lifetime Skills Guarantee by extending the debt burden onto students in further education, as those wishing to gain new skills and retrain will be deterred by a system based on loans and debt. It also slams the defunding of BTECs, which provide a crucial route for students to access higher education.

UCU is balloting staff at over 150 universities across the UK on cuts to pensions, pay and attacks on working conditions. The union is now urging Mr Zahawi to step in, and get university employers to meet UCU so they can resolve the dispute.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: ‘As Secretary of State for Education, Mr Zahawi must be a voice for students in England and take on colleagues in government who want to worsen the student debt nightmare.

‘If the government pushes through regressive student loan changes, graduates on some of the lowest salary bands will see their pay packets hit. This is a tax on education and aspiration.

‘Our members are balloting for industrial action to fight back against a university system which fails students and graduates, leaving them with shocking levels of debt, and staff with declining pay, pension cuts and insecure contracts. Mr Zahawi should urge university bosses to meet with us and negotiate in good faith over these issues that have been ignored for so long.

‘University staff want to avoid any disruption, but that is in the gift of employers, who simply have to agree to the modest demands of their own frontline staff.’

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