UCAS backs down over debt ads – but not enough
The university admissions service has partially backed down over the sending of emails which include advertising from a private student loan firm, but MoneySavingExpert.com founder Martin Lewis is calling on it to go further.
The University and College Admissions Service (UCAS) was criticised after it sent out an email through its commercial arm, UCAS Media, which featured marketing from private lender Future Finance – a firm that provides 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 a year on 6 April 2020), interest rates on Future Finance loans range from 8% up to 23.7%.
Last week, the Charity Commission wrote to UCAS to "remind it of its obligations", saying it was aware of concerns over the emails.
UCAS has now said any future messages will include "clear information on all the funding options available to students" and will "strengthen the information it provides" – but Martin Lewis has reiterated his call for it to ban adverts from any commercial debt firms.
Update Tue 24 Sep: The higher education body Universities UK has now also told us it is looking into this issue and will raise Martin's concerns about the ads with UCAS directly.
See our Martin Lewis calls on UCAS to stop emailing ads for costly private 'student loans' MSE News story for his original letter to the UCAS board of trustees.
Martin: 'For it to be happy to push out emails about expensive debt to impressionable young people is just plain wrong'
Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com, said: "While I am a little warmed by the fact that UCAS have moved, they still have not moved enough.
"UCAS, a charity with privileged access to 18-year-olds, seems to be putting the wishes of its commercial arms over what should be good charitable aims.
"I understand it wants to generate advertising revenue, but it has already rightly prohibited some types of adverts, such as gambling – and it's important it adds high-cost credit and commercial loans to that prohibition list.
"This has never been more important. The university sector is already being criticised for not adequately supporting students' mental health. As chair of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute (MMHPI), we're very aware of the destructively high correlation between debt and mental health issues.
"UCAS is a charity, and many see its communiqués as official. For it to be happy to push out emails about expensive debt to impressionable young people – even with the caveats – is just plain wrong. The university sector itself should be putting UCAS under pressure to stop this.
"The chief executive has kindly invited me to meet her, and I will do, but not to discuss her agenda. I will only do it on the proviso that I can explain why including this type of ad is wrong, and that there is still some room to move on that."
What does the Charity Commission say?
The Charity Commission, which regulates UCAS, told us that it got in touch with the organisation at the end of last week.
A spokesperson for the watchdog said: "We are aware of concerns regarding emails sent by UCAS on behalf of Future Finance and have contacted the charity on this issue.
"We've contacted UCAS to remind them of their obligations towards their charity. It is now for the trustees to consider our guidance and how they manage their obligations in the best interests of their charity.
"More generally, charities hold important positions of trust in society, so it is vital that any relationships with non-charitable organisations are clear to those the charity is set up to help. The public rightly expect charities to be driven only by their charitable mission and purpose in everything they do. New guidance from the commission makes clear that trustees should work to defend and promote their independence from non-charitable organisations at all times."
The Charity Commission published its new guidance on 29 March this year.
What does UCAS say?
UCAS told us that it will be responding "imminently" to the Charity Commission, while chief executive Clare Marchant will be writing to Martin to request a meeting to discuss the issues.
A spokesperson said: "The UCAS and UCAS Media boards have this week discussed feedback from the Charity Commission, MoneySavingExpert and students on the recent Future Finance email sent to students who chose to opt in to mailings from UCAS Media.
"Trustees continue to support UCAS Media's objective to work with companies that provide products and services which are likely to be of value to students.
"Following discussion, we will work with Future Finance to ensure further messages from UCAS Media include clear information on all the funding options available to students, stressing that a Government-funded loan should always be the first port of call, as well as signalling the likely interest rates and terms within the email.
"We will look to strengthen the information and advice we provide through our website, emails and across social media."
What does Future Finance say?
A Future Finance spokesperson said: "We make very clear in all our communications that we are a private lender.
"We are committed to responsible, transparent lending practices and always tell students that they should exhaust all Government-subsidised support before coming to us."