The largest amount of debt amassed by a student in England is £189,700, according to official figures as research warns of the severe “psychological toll” that high levels of student debt is taking on graduates.
The Student Loan Company said the £189,700 figure was “an exceptional case” and was possibly accrued over loans for several courses, for instance because the person had undertaken postgraduate study or dropped out of multiple courses, according to a response to a Freedom of Information request.
However, when the FOI response was published on Reddit, it prompted an outpouring of comments from graduates citing student debts around the £100,000 mark, including those who had studied five-year medicine degrees, postgraduate courses or who had switched courses or institutions.
The sum sheds light on the scale of the debt burden for graduates who attended university after annual tuition fees were tripled to £9,000 in 2012. Those who graduated in 2020 took out an average of £45,060 in loans, according to a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute which warns that graduates feel their debt is “draining, weighing them down, on their shoulders” and causing them “anxiety, pressure, worry and dread”.
Many of the 98 graduates interviewed for the report, who started university between 2006 and 2013, felt that “tuition fees and interest rates are too high, the amount of debt owed is a burden and the loan repayment period never-ending”, the authors wrote.
Claire Callender, professor of higher education at UCL and one of the report’s authors, said: “It is essential we listen to graduates to develop evidence-based, sustainable and fair higher education funding policies in the future. “Why should the loans of even the poorest post-2012 students accrue such high interest rates while they are studying and before they reap any benefits from their higher education? Why burden students psychologically and materially with enormous debts when most will never fully repay them? And is the student loan system and the income it generates for the Treasury really worth the potential long-term consequences for graduates’ welfare, life choices and opportunities – affecting the lives of generations to come?”
Interviewees felt that the 5.6% interest rate was too high and unfair, and worried about the government’s ability to change repayment terms retrospectively, which could result in unmanageable payments. For instance, at the moment repayments do not start until a graduate earns £27,000 but there are reports this could be cut to £23,000. One graduate said they felt they were “moving one step forward and then two steps back”.
Graduates acknowledged the benefits of some aspects of the system – that there are no upfront costs to attend university and that repayments are currently affordable – but resented the “excessive” costs of their degree relative to what earlier students had paid.
They felt there was a lack of transparency in how the money was used, and that fees represented poor value for money. Most did not believe that they would repay their “lifelong” loan and felt that “there is no light at the end of the tunnel”.
The problem was especially acute for for those who attended university after 2012. One graduate described the debt as “an insane amount of money” that is “beyond comprehension of what anybody in my position could earn”. Many said they avoided looking at loan slips, and some said they had made life and career decisions based on their loan repayments.
Their experience is echoed by Craig Rossiter, who sent the FOI request to the SLC after wondering whether, at £61,000, his debt might be the largest in the UK. Rossiter dropped out of five university degrees, initially due to his struggles with depression and drug abuse, and later after having a baby meant he needed to secure a full-time job.
Rossiter sees his “debt as a graduate tax that will be with me for ever”, and is especially worried about how changes to the repayment term could impose “a huge extra cost” he will struggle to meet.
Rossiter thinks the high debt burden especially penalises those who struggle most at university. “There are things I did wrong but people from a working class background like myself and who go to the schools I went to aren’t as prepared,” he said.
One respondent to Rossiter’s Reddit post, Simon Tyrie, said that in the three years post-graduation his loan had increased from £49,510 to £60,081, and he had calculated that by 2050 he would have £152,000 worth of debt. He said the “alarming” figure had dissuaded him from pursuing a postgraduate degree.
He added that the debt and interest accrued hit poorer students the hardest, since he had to take out the highest maintenance loan and did not receive any support from parents, as some of his wealthier peers had. “It becomes a regressive tax on people from low income families.”