“Our student support system is currently one of the most generous in the world. We will make it more progressive.”
Universities Minister David Willetts, 3 November 2010

Progressive – it’s become a buzz word for the coalition, along with fairness. And it is hard to underestimate the importance of the word when Nick Clegg has a mountain to climb to get his MPs to break an election pledge to vote against any increase in tuition fees.

And Conservative Universities Minister David Willetts’ speech today was peppered with the word, as he announced to the Commons what parts of Lord Browne’s review into Higher Education funding the coalition would accept and what they would amend.

But when Browne’s report was released many balked at the idea that his system of higher fees paid back after graduation was progressive. And, as FactCheck found at the time, while those graduates on the lowest incomes would pay less according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Social Media Foundation found that it is those with middle incomes who would be hit hardest.

And it is a stretch to call something progressive when someone on £27,000 pays back more for their degree than someone on £60,000 or more because they accumulate more interest.

So we thought we’d have a quick look at what has changed between Browne’s repayment system and the Coalition’s plans outlined today?

For a start, the interest rate that those graduates earning between £21,000 and £41,000 accumulate on their debts will be tapered, from no interest for those earning under £21,000 to inflation (RPI) plus three per cent for those earning £41,000 or over (up from RPI plus 2.2 per cent that Browne recommended). This means that those on more modest graduate incomes will rack up less interest than before.

UPDATE: The IFS’ initial reflections on the announcement said this tapered interest rate was more progressive, but added it would be “more complex and it is not clear how this would be implemented, nor which measure of earnings would be used to calculate a graduate’s interest rate, which could add to administrative burdens”.

Second, the £150m National Bursaries scheme will also skew the system, as the suggestion is – and Willetts said they will have to consult on this – that this money will allow universities to waive at least the first year of fees for poorer students. But exactly how this will work is still to be discussed with higher education stakeholders, Mr Willetts said.

Additionally, the Coalition has suggested that they will deter those who earn more from paying off their loan early by charging a levy on any additional payments, but, again, this is still to be a subject for consultation, he said.

So while there are some moves in today’s announcements, it is still a waiting game to see just how progressive the Coalition’s changes can make the system in order to sway those wavering – or outright opposing – MPs among their ranks.

And it seems appropriate to mention Mike Brewer from the IFS’s comments on Monday to the Treasury Select committee. “Progressive” is a technical term, he said (it’s a description of distributional impact, so a policy is usually described as progressive if it fairly consistently helps the poorest most, or hurts them least). And, he said, it is possible for something to be both progressive and unfair.