Should university be free?
Ein Hochschulabschluss ist die beste Voraussetzung für eine gut bezahlte Position, und ein hohes Bildungsniveau der Gesellschaft nutzt auch einem Staat und seiner Wirtschaft. Sollte ein Universitätsstudium daher nicht gebührenfrei sein? JULIAN EARWAKER gi
“University education should be considered a public good, not just a commodity”
University education should be free, most importantly so that it is considered a public good, and not just a commodity. University has changed over the past 30 to 40 years. It is now considered an individual good: a graduate aims to make more money on the job market after getting their degree.
Universities produce research and innovation, which, if it generates economic growth, should be a public resource. In places such as Britain and the United States, where high tuition fees are paid for by loans, students are actually subsidizing that research and innovation.
It is worthwhile for a society to have a well-educated citizenship. Places such as Germany and Scandinavia achieve this with free university education. In the UK, the 50 per cent of the population without higher education is not well provided for by the educational system because all sorts of jobs require a university degree today. Jobseekers are faced with either taking out a student loan to gain a degree, or not getting a decent job. Governments should make university access completely universal, as they do with secondary education. Or even better, they should match qualifications to occupations because a lot of the assumptions that a university degree leads to a job were based on periods when only 15 to 25 per cent of the population went to university.
The wealthiest students have their university fees paid up front by their parents. The rest of the current generation, who take out large student loans, are not only paying for their own education, they are paying for the expansion of the university sector to feed the high-tech service and knowledge economy. This expansion could be better achieved by investing a percentage of GDP in universities and other forms of training and education. Currently, anyone doing work that does not require a degree is disadvantaged by a system in which the principal means of social mobility is via expensive higher education. Just when women and minorities started to have access to university, the government changed the system so that everyone needs to pay for that education themselves. That can be a huge problem for people who wish to enrol in a university. Nobody should be excluded from attending university if they could benefit from it.
“There are challenges that come with funding a university system that is entirely free”
University education must be sustainably funded. If, as some political parties propose, we see tuition fees cut, this would need to be compensated in full by government grant funding. It’s not just a question of whether university education should be free at the point of use for students — it has to be a high-quality education and experience for students. A funding deficit per student would affect universities’ ability to deliver the experience students deserve, resulting in larger class sizes, poorer facilities and less advice, support and choice.
There are challenges that come with funding a university system that is entirely free for its students. Is it possible, for example, to maintain the right amount of funding per student without imposing a cap on the number of students who go to university to keep the system affordable? With the number of students wanting to go to university showing no signs of falling, there may be a risk of damaging access for students, including those from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups.
This raises the question of whether there would be adequate public funding to meet the significantly higher number of students expected in the years following the rapid demographic increase. With more 18-year-olds wanting to study at university (new UCAS figures show a record rate of 34 per cent of UK 18-year-olds entering higher education in 2019, totalling 241,515 young people), we estimate that this could increase the cost of a no-fees policy by more than £2 billion (about €2.4 billion) a year from the 2025–26 academic year onwards. Any new funding plan needs to consider these rising numbers and associated costs.
The system also needs to be fair. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that getting rid of the fee and loan system would be of most benefit to wealthier graduates: under the current system, the least wealthy graduates do not pay back their loans.
There is also the question of who benefits from higher education and, therefore, who should contribute to the system. While graduates can benefit from relatively higher salaries, there are societal and wider economic benefits to having more university graduates in the economy, too. All students deserve a highquality, well-funded university experience, with enough money in their pockets to make the most of it.