Martin Lewis calls on UCAS to stop emailing ads for costly private 'student loans'
MoneySavingExpert.com founder Martin Lewis has called on the university admissions service to stop sending out emails with advertising from a private student loan firm charging up to 24% interest – warning that such commercial loans are "inappropriate for the huge majority of recipients".
Update 9 September: The UCAS chief executive has replied to Martin to say his letter will be considered by the UCAS Media Board. See below for the full update.
His call comes after a number of people complained on social media to the University and College Admissions Service (UCAS) about an email which featured marketing from private lender Future Finance – a firm that offers loans to both undergraduate and postgraduate students.
Unlike Government-funded student loans, which currently have an interest rate of up to 5.4% and only require you to start repaying once you've graduated and are earning over £25,725 a year (rising to £26,575 on 6 April 2020), interest rates on Future Finance loans range from 8% up to 23.7%.
Another key difference is that students begin to pay off these commercial loans while they are studying.
Martin Lewis has now written to the UCAS board of trustees asking them to ensure the organisation stops sending out emails which include this kind of advert. He has also sent the letter to the Minister for Universities and Universities UK – you can read it in full below.
Dear Professor Lamberts,
I am writing to you to raise a formal concern with the UCAS board of trustees, which I hope you will urgently address. I will also be sending a copy of the letter to the Minister for Universities and the head of Universities UK.
UCAS recently sent an email to existing and prospective students planning to go to university, which included a large and prominent advert for Future Finance, a costly debt firm – advertising a product that is inappropriate for the huge majority of recipients. We have seen a number of concerns raised by shocked recipients.
In allowing inclusion of this advert, we believe your charity breached an ethical line, and failed in its duty of care to the people it communicates with, which includes a high proportion of school leavers.
UCAS has privileged, monopoly access to this young and impressionable audience. It is also seen as an institutional authority and therefore adverts contained in your email are effectively being legitimised by inclusion, and some may even mistake it for a direct recommendation.
While of course most students will be taking out official student 'loans', they are an entirely different beast from the commercial debt this email was flogging. Student loans are income contingent – only repaid if people earn enough after university and repaid in proportion to that – and the debt wipes after 30 years.
Therefore interest added to student loans is not necessarily ever repaid, in fact some students won't repay any interest at all if they don't earn enough.Yet even so, official student loans currently have a maximum interest rate of 5.4%, while these commercial loans have rates of up to 23.7% – worse than most high street credit cards, and far worse than the interest-free overdrafts most students have access to.
MoneySavingExpert.com has happily worked with UCAS in the past, to provide content to help explain how the complexities of student finance work. Therefore to see your organisation tainted by allowing such adverts is very disappointing.
I would kindly ask that the trustees urgently consider permanently and publicly blocking the inclusion of these adverts, and adverts from any commercial debt firms, in future.
Founder & Chair, MoneySavingExpert.com
What did the emails say?
The emails were sent last month by UCAS through its commercial arm – UCAS Media – to people who had given permission to receive marketing emails on behalf of other companies.
The emails included information about Future Finance, and said: "Student finance not enough? Apply for extra funding whenever you need it."
A number of people have tweeted their concerns over the emails to UCAS, including one which can be seen below.
What does UCAS say?
A UCAS spokesperson said: "UCAS always advises that the best option for students is a Government-funded student loan, with information and signposting on our website, plus many additional pages on finance, including additional tips for students to manage their money.
"Throughout their application, students will also receive multiple emails from UCAS that include instructions on how to apply for their tuition fee/maintenance loan through the Student Loans Company.
"UCAS Media works with companies that provide products and services which are likely to be useful for students and offers a variety of ways of connecting with them, including email campaigns. Students receiving information from UCAS Media have proactively chosen to do so, and can easily opt-out at any point if they don't feel the information is relevant.
"We never sell applicants' data, we send the mail campaigns on behalf of other organisations.
"UCAS Media, who the relationship with Future Finance is with, carefully considers which companies to work with and how to work with them, for example we will never partner with tobacco, alcohol or gambling companies.
"UCAS is compliant with all relevant Charity Commission guidance, and the framework that determines which kinds of companies UCAS Media works with is regularly reviewed."
What does Future Finance say?
Future Finance says it has lent over £100 million to 15,000 students, and its chief executive, Olga Dolchenko, says it fills the gap if students are unable to access traditional forms of finance, but never encourages students to borrow more than they can afford.
She insisted its terms were "competitive" and said "we actively encourage financial responsibility by engaging with our borrowers from the outset of our relationship."
She added: "We always advise students to go the Student Loans Company before seeking funding from us."
UCAS chief executive Clare Marchant responded to Martin's letter on Friday 6 September.
Within her letter, she said: "UCAS Media listens to all the feedback that it receives from customers about its services, and shares this with its clients. The UCAS Media Board also always considers feedback about its services which on this occasion will include your letter. The UCAS Board also regularly considers feedback about UCAS Media as part of its regular consideration of risks and issues."
Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com, said: "While we're grateful for the reply, it does seem somewhat full of excuses rather than tackling the ethical issue. However I am hopeful the UCAS Media Board makes the right decision, which is never to run this advert or any similar types again.
"If it does not, we will continue upping our campaign and once the new Universities Minister is fully in place, as we tend to have regular meetings with them, it will be the first issue on our agenda."
Martin's letter to the UCAS board of trustees was widely covered in the news last week, and was met with support by Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party, and Eva Crossan Jory, the NUS vice president for welfare (as seen below). Another Twitter user replied with a picture of a Future Finance leaflet they'd been sent in the post by UCAS Media.