Education, education, education. That was the pitch from Tony Blair in 1996 when he set out his party’s three main priorities for government. Two years later, he introduced tuition fees as a means of boosting funding to higher education in the UK. The argument was that it would allow greater investment in universities, improving standards and paving the way for world-class institutions.

Since then, the fees charged have shot up from £3,000 per year to over £9,000. Interest rates on student debt has also steadily increased, leaving many young people heavily indebted. The tuition fees policy was controversial at the time, and was later responsible for sinking the political fortunes of Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. It’s an issue that just won’t go away, and most recently landed Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in hot water over accusations that he has broken his promises on student debt.

Not everybody believes tuition fees are necessary. Scotland has a policy of free-tuition for higher education. Tuition fees have been abolished in Germany (though they have recently been reintroduced for non-EU students). But are those systems really working out?

We had a comment sent in from Pedro, who thinks university education should be free for all. It’s a nice idea, but who pays for it?

To get a response to Pedro, we approached Andreas Schleicher, the Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills at the OECD. What would he say?

What is important is that the best and brightest have access to university, and not just the wealthiest. At the same time, somebody has to pay for it. So, we need to find is a way to share the costs and benefits among the public, government, and employers so it is actually the best and brightest that will get the best places in university…

Having no fees is not a guarantee to achieving greater equity. In fact, some of the most inequitable higher education systems are ones where there are no university fees, because what that often means is that governments often don’t invest very much money, and it means that places only go to those with the best credentials, which means those who can afford the most expensive private tutoring and schooling. So, I think no fee is no guarantee for greater equity. On the other hand, it’s true that fees can also be a source of inequality, no doubt about that. I think the answer is we’ve got to look at more creative ways of sharing costs and benefits.

We also had a comment from Catherine, who asks if we can really “afford to cripple young people with student debt”. Do student fees really place less of a burden on society? Or does society pay either way, with fees just shifting the burden from the wealthy to the poor?

I don’t quite agree with this… I think education is an investment, and I think it’s completely right that people, later in their lives when they have a decent salary, contribute back to society. You can do this like the Swedes and the Finns with higher taxes, but it’s basically the same thing. In Sweden, when you’re earning a lot, you pay higher taxes. It’s the same principle.

I think it’s absolutely adequate and fair to ask people who have benefited from a great education to give something back to society. The question is: how do you make sure the debt doesn’t discourage people from studying? That’s why I think income contingency is important, to make sure that people who pay back can actually afford to do so.

Should university education be free? Or is that model of higher education unsustainable when so many people want to go to university? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – GW Public Health
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110 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. Karlo Definis

    That’s a dumb question since something that has market value and involves a lot of work can’t by definition be free. A better question would be: who should pay for the cost of education (in Europe I guess)?

    • Ar No

      Free as in “free of charge for students” stop pretending to not understand. The state should pay for it with taxes.

    • Barbara Szela Lesniak

      Ar No In fact, it’s taxpayers who pay as state does not have money.

    • Edita Buržinskaitė

      Ultimately, the taxpayers, of course. But this is a worthy investment.

    • Paul X

      Worthy investment for who exactly?….how does the average taxpayer benefit by paying for someone else’s education?
      I’m sure working class people who’s children have no hope of attending university would rather have their taxes paid on something that actually benefits them

    • Maxence Rizo

      actually we could consider taxpayers should pay for it to internalise the good externalities generated by a more educated population, and have student take up the rest costs because they also made an investment for themselves doing studies (eventually this can be modulated to match student’s family situation etc)

    • Harry J. Nikolaides

      I strongly agree with Karlo!
      I guess wealthy people, international companies & the state.

  2. Stefano Nasini

    University education is not a good/service like the others produced in the market. In fact, it determines the role that each person plays in society. For that reason, it is simply unfair that such roles are established based on the wealth of the parents (if so, the kids of the wealthiest will remain rich, because they have access to better university titles). Indeed, this was exactly the target of the French Revolution: the ancien régime, a social system in which the roles in the social structure are inherited from the parents. Thus, if you want a society in which everybody is able to build his/her own destiny, regardless of the conditions of his/her parents, you need equal starting points for all, you need university systems to be financed by the tax-payers, that is to say, by the States.

    • カメニャク マリオ

      And for the students thmselves, that is free for all practical intents and purposes.

  3. Franck Legon

    Yes, it should be free and at the same time should be granted students showing the best results first, in the limit of available quantity and conditional to a minimum level.

  4. catherine benning

    Should university education be free?

    Education is not and will not ever be ‘free.’ It is paid for by our taxes. And at no time was we advised this part of our donation to the running costs of our country was going to be withdrawn by government policy.

    Reinstate the ‘free at the point of use’ education at all levels, we have been paying erroneously for, in haste and at once.

  5. Arnout Posthumus

    Aslong as everyone can do any study or atleast the vast majority of it then there is no problem. If studies are so expensive that it becomes a wealth issue then the state should compensate.

    • Efstratios Grammenis

      Like many others such as security services (fire fighters, police, ambulances etc). In that manner nothing is free.

    • João Oliveira

      You already pay it with your tax money…

  6. Aedín Harris

    It should be affordable, I’ll have twins going to uni in two years time, hoping I’ll win the lotto!

  7. Bódis Kata

    Investment into capital assets can be written off over time, thus the value is recovered.

    Investment into one’s education should be either free or follow the same principles.

    Currently we have an economic system that gives preference to capital assets over human assets and the consequences damage the quality of life.

  8. Theofanis Faid Koulouris

    Meaning should we use taxs in order to invest on higher education? Yes of course. As long as that will not affect the quality of degrees and students.

  9. Róbert Bogdán

    No. It should become affordable as a result of a free market competition. The government should guarantee and oversee the freedom of the market, but it should never be a direct player or try to influence the market. I would abolish state universities entirely and keep as few regulations as possible.

    • Mauricio Giordanelli

      Yeah, that has worked wonders in the US. Just ask Trump university students.

    • Andrius Zalitis

      That is the just the absolute worst way to go. In countries where this idea had a place to foster quality decreased and prices sky-rocketed, so even for the well-prepared students it was a slow disaster.

    • Róbert Bogdán

      Yeah, that’s why the world’s top 20 universities are mostly from the US, UK or Singapore. And are mostly private, not state funded.

    • Filip Nieto

      This sentence makes no sense to me ! So the “poor” are no adults ? Weird …

  10. Ingrida Marciulaityte

    Should be free everywhere. If there are so many young people who want to study at university, they must to prove they are worth it. University Entrance Test – same for everyone would be an example. It would give some kind of equality. Currently, there are so many students who simply buy a diploma because they can afford it or have relevant connections – their knowledge is considerable. There are so many universities that have very low entrance requirements and almost everyone can get there and graduate if their families are ready to pay hude amount of money. It’s sad that we need to “buy” the knowledge.

  11. Leopold Rotim

    Well, it is not possible for university to be free. This is more question on do you want to pay for it directly or do you want to pay first politicians and then university. I choose first one

  12. Mauricio Giordanelli

    Well, the government should fund it and look for ways to get the students to pitch in by assisting with clerical duties and other contributions.

    • Lawrence Baron

      Actually getting large companies to pay taxes is enough.

  13. Andrew Rout

    Education is an investment that every country should take seriously. It must be completely free of charges. It would lead to higher paid workforce, increase GDP and increase state earnings from taxes. It’s a Win – Win situation, for society, people, and economy.

  14. Paul X

    The cost of education should be graduated depending upon the subject being taken.
    Useful subjects like Engineering should be free, as there is always a shortage of Engineers, students taking topics like “History of Art” and “Golf Studies” should be made to pay full whack as they are clearly only after a few years dossing about as a student then graduating with a degree for which the future job prospects are virtually zero

  15. Andrius Zalitis

    Of course it should be publicly funded. Success of higher education is an interest and benefit of the whole society, and because of that the society should support higher education in return.

  16. Panos Kontogiannis

    Not to study money making, highly desirable professions. Some studies could be subsidized if the domain is important but not attracting enough students.

  17. Michael Hales

    “University” suggests “universal” does it not? Ergo, should not every individual be educated to the best of their ability, whether it be in an intellectual, technical or practical field? In which case, yes.

    • Stephen Earle

      That’s just an idealistic dream. Nothing’s free, somebody has to pay in the end

    • Michael Hales

      Stephen Earle Isn’t that what taxation is for?

    • Jan

      Yes! It really is that simple. It is the whole of our society that will benefit from having the equal opportunity. Education should not be creating individuals enslaved by a massive debt.

    • Paula Pandora Allen

      they do.. graduates generally pay higher rates of tax than uneducated farm workers etc

    • Stephen Earle

      Paula Pandora Allen , because the degree has enabled them to earn more
      If you buy something you pay for it

    • Ahmad Tajir

      Send me to visa to Malta hehehehe

  18. Maldiluna Lino

    Missleading question. Health and education should be free to every one. The state should have that as a priority when planning a social policy. If we, the working people, do not feel well covered on those fields at least, through huge taxes we already pay, what the fuck should we be keeping pay for? Health and education are not market products despite the inputted common thinking of the “developed” world.

  19. Björn Eric Ingemar Grahn

    Mutch better to par otroligt thro taxes so every onekligen cancer have equal terms or we Will Only have a ritch elit like in US. A nightmeare

  20. Mario Dingli

    For those who cannot afford to pay, yes, it should be free: for rich people there should be a charge.

  21. Michael

    It isn’t free in Belgium, but costs 150 euro a year for the less fortunate students and they get up to 2000 euro a year as a grant for other costs like books, transport,…of they don ‘t mess up their year. Free isn’t ideal to avoid spilling with government money and don ‘t put and effort in studying. But no Ine should enter the labour market with heavy debat from education.

  22. Lynne Warner

    Of course! Then when the majority of the population have degrees in sociology, psychology, philosophy and the like, you can bring down salaries again. Already experience and hard work is second best to someone with a degree in arts and media even if they work in the field of mechanical engineering. It’s just another equalizing experiment to control labour and thereby the people.

    • Sari Bruno

      So, that will happen anyway, why not to give everybody possibility to enjoy learning? They will find another way to control us even if this wouldn’t happen.

    • Lynne Warner

      Writing from first hand experience, not everybody can handle doing a degree (me included) , so they will lower the pass rate and we will become the modern day Roman empire crumbling.

  23. Sari Bruno

    I agree, because there will be many new type of employments in which special skills.

    • HanY2

      The answers to this question is quite simple, basically you. Through the taxes.

  24. Maurizio Flores Felis

    Yes it should but…..society then has to also make good use of its graduates. Capitalism is not a system it’s an episodic re-occurrence. Education is communitarian and should serve the good of the community. Research should also be an institution in which society must invest the same amount of money we are throwing away on destructive wars and military expenses. A Society that invests in Destruction is senseless. How even more senseless to invest on ultimate destruction.

  25. Galina Dimitrova Valcheva

    It should have higher standards for entry exams and it should be free. Not like now. Whoever has money studies, not who has the capacity for it

  26. Marco Peel

    The only way to get the best people in the right place, is to ensure everyone has a fair chance to develop their full potential. Education is a social investment that pays off in terms of ideas, progress, wellbeing, democracy, equality… As such it should be accessible to all who have the abilities and are willing to put in the effort.

  27. Portelli

    In Malta education is free up until you receive a degree. One starts paying fees only at postgraduate level. Adding to that, maltese students doing both the A level matriculation course, and reading for a degree/diploma also receive monthly stipend, with some courses having more than others, as well as a lump sum every year at the beginning of the scholastic year.

  28. Pete Ò Napulitan Fitzpatrick

    But how many psychologists do we need???? What about vocational training being stepped up….there must be a better mix….let’s face it some of the degrees on offer at some of the weaker unis could be attained by a person of 11+ standard.

  29. Abhilash Korraprolu

    “There is no such things as free lunch”. Someone is always paying for it. And to believe that you have the right to make your neighbour pay for your expenses is to believe in the ethics of those primitive savages who rob from others instead of earning it. And no sugar coating it with ‘education’ or ‘love compassion’ will make it any less immoral.

  30. Konstantinos Likas

    Yes, it should be financed by the government (nothing is free, and even a small tuition fee may be justified under the circumstances) under the condition that it fosters, finances, incentivises, and supports the ones who excel in their studies.

  31. Boban Trajkovic

    If you paid your studies (just like me) then you should have a right, that if you want, change your university degree for money?

  32. Jinwon Song

    University should be free for everybody,because studets usually don’t have money and their parents may have other children to take care of. What is more, it is eally hard for sfudents to work and study at the same time to finance themselves.

  33. Marta

    There are many students who have the brains to get into an university but just don’t have the resources. In 2017 higher education shouldn’t be the privilege of the rich folks, we have to give a chance for those who aren’t financially well off. There would still be private universities where you have to pay tuition. For example, in Estonia there are high quality national universities where you get to study for free and you’ll get a good education and next to these are the private higher education schools.The same system also works in Germany.

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