Why Christians should be worried about student debt


This week the main point of political debate in the UK is student fees. Large debts for college graduates have been a feature of American life for generations. In the UK, however, it's a much newer phenomenon.

When I studied, grants had only just been abolished and tuition fees introduced at £1,000 per year. Soon that was raised to £3,000 a year, before a final increase up to a maximum level of over £9,000 a year.

Research this week indicated that on top of tuition, rent, bills and other costs would mean that a poor student could expect to accrue £57,000 worth of debt over the course of studying for an undergraduate degree. Those independent figures are shocking in a country that only a couple of generations ago not only had free tuition but also gave grants to help with living costs.

This piece doesn't aim to debate the rights and wrongs of the shift in policy, but rather to look at the wider ramifications of the shift from university teaching being funded by general taxation to being funded by personal debt.

Since the triumph of Thatcherism in the UK (and, of course, Reaganomics in the US), taxation has been vilified. Meanwhile debt has been completely normalised. This has happened to such an extent that personal indebtedness is now at record and dangerous levels. The whole economy is fuelled by personal debt and essentially reliant on it.

The Office for National Statistics now says household debt is at record levels, outstrippig the levels seen before the financial crisis. Student debt and mortgages don't count towards these figures, which is significant. The argument here isn't that student debt is bad per se, instead that it has been part of a culture which has changed radically in only a few short years.

That change didn't happen in a vacuum. Credit cards, store cards, hire-purchase, payday lenders and many other forms of credit have become increasingly accepted as part of the mainstream. I tweeted to that effect this morning and had a reply which said a friend's bank insisted he to get and use a credit card because he had no history of debt, and therefore was 'unsafe'.

Debt has gone from being an option t be avoided if at all possible, to a compulsory facet of the contemporary economy. As labour Peer Lord Glasman points out, Newcastle United football shirts used to have Northern Rock, a local building society, sponsoring them. This was replaced by Wonga, a payday lender.

When I got my first job in a large electronics retailer at age 16, I would spend hours each week filling in credit agreements for people spending thousands of pounds on electrical goods they sometimes didn't need and which would take them years to pay back.

Seen in this light, the decision to put graduates into debt (rather than to change a graduate tax, for example) was a disastrous error by successive governments.

It has been a part of normalising indebtedness and discouraging paying tax – both of which have been hugely problematic for the health of our economy and society.

The Bible and Christian teaching have an awful lot to say about money, credit and debt. Debt isn't inherently a bad thing in Christian teaching, provided it facilitates relationship, rather than exploiting those needing to take out loans.

The problem is that credit and debt relationships very easily become exploitative without a strong framework around them. This is why the Hebrew Bible is full of injunctions ensuring the people did not exploit each other. The Jubilee debt cancellation project is the most obvious but there are many others.

Lending at interest – usury – was prohibited through much of Christian history and this only began to change with the Reformation 500 years ago. Even so, a level of caution around debt still pervaded British society until well after the end of the Victorian age.

In only a few generations personal indebtedness has become an endemic part of our economy and society. We should be concerned about this not because of esoteric Old Testament rules, but because it has an effect here and now.

Student loan debt is actually pretty benign, only needing to be paid off when a graduate is earning sufficient amount. Other forms of credit are far more dangerous, though. Whether through necessity (poverty pay, a crisis illness) or through avarice (buying things we can't afford) debt places a burden on mental health, on relationships and on our wellbeing as a society. Some versions of the Lords prayer proclaim forgiveness of debts as we forgive others theirs. We need to start taking this much, much more seriously before another crisis hits us.

Follow Andy Walton on Twitter @waltonandy