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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