Tag: debt forgiveness

With university fees for home students in England of £9250 per year and with many students receiving maintenance loans of around £9000 per year, many students are graduating with debts in excess of £50 000. Loans are repaid at a marginal rate of 9% on incomes over £25 716.

Many students also study for a masters degree. The average fee for a taught, classroom-based masters (MA) is £7392 and for a laboratory-based masters (MSc) is £8167 but can be considerably higher at some prestigious universities where demand is high. Government loans of up to £10 906 are available to contribute towards fees and maintenance. These are paid back at a marginal rate of 6% for people earning over £21 000, giving a combined marginal rate of 15% for first and masters degrees.

For high earners on the 40% income tax rate, the combined marginal rate of payment out of income is 40% tax, plus 2% national insurance, plus 15% for those with undergraduate and masters loans. This gives a combined marginal rate of 57%.

Average student debt in England is higher even than in the USA, where the average is $37 000. US university courses are more expensive than in the UK, costing an average of $34 000 per year in tuition alone. But undergraduates can borrow less. They can borrow between $5500 and $12 500 per year in federal loans towards both fees and maintenance, and some private loans are also available. Most students do some paid work during their studies to make up the difference or rely on parents contributing. Parental contributions mean that students from poor families end up owing more. According to a Guardian article:

Race is a huge factor. Black students owe an average of $7400 more than white students when they graduate, the Brookings Institution found. After graduation, the debt gap continues to widen. Four years after graduation, black graduates owe an average of nearly $53 000 – nearly double that of white graduates.

Student debt looks to become one of the key issues in the 2020 US presidential election.

Pressure to cancel student fees and debt in the USA

Most of the Democratic candidates are promising to address student fees and debt. Student debt, they claim, places an unfair burden on the younger generation and makes it hard for people to buy a house, or car or other major consumer durables. This also has a dampening effect on aggregate demand.

The most radical proposal comes from Bernie Sanders. He has vowed, if elected, to abolish student fees and to cancel all undergraduate and graduate debt of all Americans. Other candidates are promising to cut fees and/or debt.

Although most politicians and commentators agree that the USA has a serious problem of student debt, there is little agreement on what, if anything, to do about it. There are already a number of ways in which student debt can be written off or reduced. For example, if you work in the public sector for more than 10 years, remaining debt will be cancelled. However, none of the existing schemes is as radical as that being proposed by many Democrats.

Criticisms of the Democrats’ plans are mainly of two types.

The first is the sheer cost. Overall debt is around $1.6tn. What is more, making student tuition free would place a huge ongoing burden on government finances. Bernie Sanders proposes introducing a financial transactions tax on stock trading. This would be similar to a Tobin tax (sometimes dubbed a ‘Robin Hood tax’) and would include a 0.5% tax on stock transactions, a 0.1% tax on bond trades and a 0.005% tax on transactions in derivatives. He argues that the public bailed out the financial sector in 2008 and that it is now the turn of the financial sector to come to the aid of students and graduates.

The other type of criticism concerns the incentive effects of the proposal. The core of the criticism is that loan forgiveness involves moral hazard.

The moral hazard of loan forgiveness

The argument is that cancelling debt, or the promise to do so, encourages people to take on more debt. Generally, moral hazard occurs when people are protected from the consequences of their actions and are thus encouraged to make riskier decisions. For example, if you are ensured against theft, you may be less careful with your belongings. As the Orange County Register article linked below states:

If the taxpayers pay the debts of everyone with outstanding student loans, how will that affect the decisions made by current students thinking about their choices for financing higher education? What’s the message? Borrow as much as you can and wait for the debt to be canceled during the next presidential primary campaign?

Not only would more students be encouraged to go to college, but they would be encouraged to apply for more costly courses if they were free.

Universities would be encouraged to exaggerate their costs to warrant higher fees charged to the government. The government (federal, state or local) would have to be very careful in auditing courses to ensure costs were genuine. Universities could end up being squeezed for finance as government may try to cut payments by claiming that courses were overpriced.

Even if fees were not abolished, cancelling debts would encourage students to take on larger debt, if that was to be cleared at some point in the future. What is more, students (or their parents) who could afford to pay, would choose to borrow the money instead.

But many countries do have free or highly subsidised higher education. Universities are given grants which are designed to reflect fair costs.




  1. Assess the arguments for abolishing or substantially reducing student fees.
  2. Assess the arguments against abolishing or substantially reducing student fees.
  3. Assess the arguments for writing off or substantially reducing student debt.
  4. Assess the arguments against writing off or substantially reducing student debt.
  5. If it were decided to cancel student debt, would it be fair to pay students back for any debt they had already paid off?
  6. Does tackling the problem of student debt necessarily lead to a redistribution of wealth/income?
  7. Give some other examples of moral hazard.
  8. If student fees were abolished, would there be any problem of adverse selection? If so, how could this be overcome?
  9. Find out what the main UK parties are advocating about student fees and debt in the nations of the UK for home and non-home students. Provide a critique of each of their policies.

After Syriza’s dramatic victory in the Greek election, it is now seeking to pursue its manifesto promises of renegotiating the terms of Greece’s bailout and bringing an end to austerity policies.

The bailout of €240bn largely involved debt restructuring to give Greeks more time to pay. A ‘haircut’ (reduction) on privately held bonds, estimated to be somewhere between €50bn and €110bn, was more than offset by an increase of €130bn in loans granted by official creditors.

The terms of the bailout negotiated with the ‘Troika’ of the EU Commission, the ECB and the IMF, had forced the previous Greek government to make substantial fiscal adjustments. These have included large-scale cuts in government expenditure (including public-sector wages), increases in taxes, charges and fares, and selling state assets through an extensive programme of privatisation.

Although Greece is now regarded as having achieved a structural budget surplus (a surplus when the economy is operating at potential output: i.e. with a zero output gap), the austerity policies and a decline in inward investment have dampened the economy so much that, until last year, the actual budget deficit and public-sector debt continued to rise as tax revenues plummeted.

Since 2007, GDP has fallen by nearly 27% and the unemployment rate is around 26%. The fall in GDP has made the achievement of a reduction in the debt/GDP ratio that much harder. General government debt has risen from 103% of GDP in 2007 to 176% in 2014, and the budget deficit, although having peaked at 12.2% of GDP in 2013, has only been brought down through huge cuts.

As a report to the European Parliament from the Economic Governance Support Unit argues on page 27:

With less front-loaded fiscal adjustment, the EU-IMF financing envelope for Greece would have needed to expand, in what is already the largest financial assistance programme in percent of GDP in recent global history. On the other hand, a less rapid fiscal adjustment may have helped to preserve some of the productive capacity that, in the course of the adjustment, was destroyed.

The new government, although pledging not to default on debt, is insistent on renegotiating the debt and wants to achieve a high level of rescheduling and debt forgiveness. As the new Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, says:

On existing loans, we demand repayment terms that do not cause recession and do not push the people to more despair and poverty. We are not asking for new loans; we cannot keep adding debt to the mountain.

But, just as the Greek government is insistent on renegotiating its debt, so the German government and others in the EU are insisting that Greece sticks to the terms of the bailout and carries on with its current programme of debt reduction. Another haircut, they maintain, is out of the question.

We must wait to see how the negotiations play out. We are in the realms of game theory with various possible threats and promises on either side. It will be interesting to how these threats and promises are deployed.

New Leader in Greece Now Faces Creditors New York Times, Liz Alderman (26/1/15)
Syriza’s historic win puts Greece on collision course with Europe The Guardian, Ian Traynor and Helena Smith (26/1/15)
Greece Q&A: what now for Syriza and EU austerity? The Guardian, Phillip Inman (26/1/15)
Greek elections: Syriza gives eurozone economic headache BBC News, Prof Dimitri Mardas (26/1/15)
How a Syriza government would approach the eurozone The Telegraph, Andrew Lilico (19/1/15)
Australian economists urge Greek debt forgiveness as Syriza election win looks likely ABC News, Michael Janda (26/1/15)
Will Syriza win rock the global economy? CBS News, Nick Barnets (26/1/15)
Syriza should ignore calls to be responsible Irish Times. Paul Krugman (27/1/15)
Syriza Victory in Greek Election Roils European Debate Over Austerity Wall Street Journal, Marcus Walker (25/1/14)
Greece markets hit by debt default fears BBC News (28/1/15)
Why Europe Will Cave to Greece Bloomberg, Clive Crook (29/1/15)
Greece and the euro: Take the money and run The Economist, Buttonwood (28/1/15)
Tanking markets send dire warning to Greece’s new government Fortune, Geoffrey Smith (28/1/15)
The biggest debt write-offs in the history of the world The Telegraph, Mehreen Khan (2/2/15)


  1. Why has Greek debt continued to rise despite extremely tight fiscal policy?
  2. How is the structural deficit defined? What difficulties arise in trying to measure its size?
  3. Would there have been any way of substantially reducing the Greek budget deficit without driving Greece into a deep recession?
  4. What are the arguments for and against cancelling a large proportion of Greek debt? Is there a moral hazard involved here?
  5. Will the recently announced ECB quantitative easing programme help to reduce Greece’s debt?
  6. Are negotiations about debt forgiveness a zero sum game? Explain.
  7. What are the likely impacts of the Syriza victory on the global economy?