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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230 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.

    • John Smith

      Actually making it affordable would not change anything. The reason for even bringing up a free college education is to give the brightest students, who have low-income, an opportunity to study their passion. Yes tax payers are the ones paying for the cost of a free education, but with an influx of graduates going into their desired field of work this allows for a higher percentage of people with “good” paying jobs

  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.

    • Farjam

      Do you have any better idea?

  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.

  34. Petre Neagu

    Everything should be free but in this case, how can Universities be for free for everyone?

    • Petre Neagu

      Do not confuse communism with a normality from which all people should start their life.

  35. Rosy Forlenza

    yes, absolutely. undergrad definitely, if you flunk a year you have to pay for the re-doing of the modules, but otherwise it would create much more social mobility like we had in the 70s.

  36. Carl Sebastian Steenekamp

    Only for the lower classes and the academically inclined. When we have an education system where a scholar that comes from a disadvantaged background but has extinctions for all his/her grades and is one of the best peforming students cannot go to university just because his family’s financial situation than you know the education system is broken. We need to give every single scholar the exact same opportunities to have a chance at success in life, not just the very wealthy.

  37. Vassiliki Xifteri

    In Greece, it is. However, what we need to add to the university courses is soft skills. They will make the difference in our positive impact on society.

  38. Konstantinos Sfoungaris

    What do you mean by “free”? Will there be only robots and slaves working there? They would still require energy and nutrition. So stop misleading the people, nothing is free, the question is how education should be funded

  39. Bódis Kata

    When corporations make an investment to incase their earnings, the value of the investment can be written off as cost over time.

    We should give individual human beings at least the same opportunities as legal entities have: when they want to invest into their abilities to increase their earnings, they should be able to write off their costs over time. (And the corporations can even hide their profits in tax havens.)

    The current economic system favors capital over worker, which is one of the basic reasons for the growing divide between capital and labor incomes.

    Humans should not be treated inferior to corporations anywhere on the planet. Tax havens must be shut down and humans should be able to write off the cost of any education, training courses, etc.

  40. Stefania Portici

    nel mio Paese l’istruzione è uguale per tutti, non ci sono scuole per ricchi o per poveri . Tutti i giovani sono messi in condizioni di partire dallo stesso livello e di arrivare nella società nel suo ruolo in base alle loro capacità o inclinazioni . Solo nel mio Paese succede questo e veniamo penalizzati dalle regole imposte fuori del mio meraviglioso Paese che vuole trasformarci in un club riservato ( posti strategici riservati a gruppi di potere come fanno loro da anni . Criminali !!! ) . RIVOGLIO IL MIO PAESE PULITO dalle vostre birbaccionate

    • Stefania Portici

      l’Inghilterra è il Paese peggiore del mondo in quanto ad istruzione mirata a pochi ma la sua influenza è caduta a pioggia su tutti i Paesi in quanto i ragazzi sono costretti a smettere di studiare per lavorare poichè è stato reso il lavoro precario e sottopagato e i giovani aiutano i loro genitori a sopravvivere . Anche la Germania con gli Hartz 4 succede questo ma il pesce putrefatto del mondo che fa ammalare tutti è l’Inghilterra

  41. Tim Nick Knight

    America makes debt slaves of his youth, or makes them join the military for money of they are poor. That nation should be warning on how bad things can go.

  42. Yannick Cornet

    Education is the single best investment a country can do. The only difficulty with subsidising higher education (so that it is free for all who wish to join) is that economic benefits are long-term and diffuse, and therefore hard to estimate, but they are real. Better educated workforce is more likely to have better paying jobs, and therefore to bring in more tax revenues, both from higher incomes and higher consumption. A higher educated workforce is also more likely to be pursuing their passion, and therefore less likely to fall sick or unemployed, which also costs society money. This is all so true that in really smart countries, not only os education free, but students are paid a salary (about 1000€ per month in Denmark for up to 7 years). No need to say, Denmark has reaped the benefits of such public policy in being able to offer today a very high level of life quality for all. It would seem therefore to be a very wise policy indeed, although there will always be shorter term politics arguing against the immediate costs and taxes needed to afford it.

  43. Breogán Costa

    well, the ideals of neoliberals is that only his sons can study, and those are governing us…

  44. あり ありな

    Yeeeees, and not only your first degree! All of it, postgraduate courses etc. The more you invest, the more you take back. A free degree would allow students to take more internships, without the burden of students loans. And to potentially work for lower salaries.

  45. Freja Holst

    You can take a less advanced nation like the US and look at their it education system. I doesn’t work. Having higher education be only available to the rich means that the poor is permanently stuck in a loop with no chance of never living paycheck to paycheck.
    A higher educated population also makes it more attractive for potential businesses that will only boost economical growth.

  46. Mary Mather-Leahy

    Yes, it is a investment in the future of any country, & invest in apprenticeship, all should have a level playing fields

  47. Peter Redondeiro

    YES….. Knowledge, is the most powerful weapon, that has no match, except ignorance, that rises with the lack of it….

  48. Christos Boras

    We should answer another question. Do we need educated citizens or techically expertised labourforce?

  49. Hitaj Iliev Nikola Sabina

    It depends on the territory but the best results on a histori steps shows that best ever students comes from poorest society ….. often…. could be the best solution is alwayes government universities to be free with high norm of excellency accepting students and budgets free as well as the professors should be best paied —- it is already an applied formula of managing education long time ago. Also is important not to permiss too much private schools. This should follow the statistic of the population on the country itself and bring up the level of knowledge for finishing studies…..

    • Hitaj Iliev Nikola Sabina

      Tema often repeated but still under thoughts for a better level of intelectual humanity

  50. Oli Lau

    let me rephrase you. Should your education be paid fully by your neighbors? There is no such thing as a free lunch. Politicians always try to hide the dirty reality: you need to tax like crazy to provide “free” stuff.

    Helping those who need it, why not. But claiming that it is now free, is pure lie.

    • Diaconu George Razvan

      yes , we all should , otherwise we’ll just have a population that is not skilled enough for the jobs of the future. that problem exists already today

    • Edita Buržinskaitė

      An investment into education is an investment into the future. You get free education, paid by the taxpayers, then other students get free education, again paid by the taxpayers, one of which is now you. Everyone benefits. However, I think, there should be an adequate “plank”, so that not everyone who wants and just slacked out through the school years is accepted but those who work hard and are capable.

    • Jekaterina Kati

      Yeah, you get free education and then move abroad. Niice

  51. Bódis Kata

    University education shouldn’t be too expensive to afford. The fees should reflect the direct costs and not brandnames.

    The fees should be affordable, and those fees should be deductible over time from the income tax base — like corporate investments.

    Basically an individual investing into his/her own skills should be able to write off the investment as cost. This goes for university fees and skill trainings, too.

    This approach would also help steer people towards “sensible” university courses, ones that they can later get jobs with.

  52. Kyr Skrik

    Yes. Should be free. Uni industry is disoriented. Leave good and excellent students free to explore their skills. Close all kind of colleges of nowhere.

  53. Stef

    No, universities should not be free. If anything it should become more expensive again to battle credential inflation.

    Right now you need a €20 000 degree to start as a administrative assistant in Belgium, which is totally absurd and unsustainable.

  54. Francesca ForzadiVolontà Valente

    No. A free university would receive funds from government or from private firms and this would threaten their autonomy. At least, this is my view for my country, Italy. Tuition fees should be calculated according to the family income so that wealthier should pay more, and aids should be given to low-income And deserving students. Another risk, in fact, due to the lack of employability, is to transform the university in a mid-term parking for non employed.

    • Ivan Burrows

      Who is going to pay for it ?

    • Ivan Burrows

      Spyros Kouvoussis Why should they or I pay for your education ? you want it you pay for it.

    • Kirstie Mamoyo Rogers

      Ivan Burrows I do see your point, however, I think we’d end up back at the point where only rich kids could go to university. I do think our system needs an overhaul. As a mature student (in my 40s) I was actually horrified that I paid 9k a year for 6 hours contact time a week. I live in Cambridge but didn’t attend Cambridge uni yet my fees were the same yet my degree isn’t worth the same. I feel a bit scammed if I’m honest.

    • Liz Lyz

      So, Ivan ( Chinese woman), thinking to absolute, doesn’t matter how idiot is a person how long the taxes are paid. After, if you need a doctor, you choose one of them, only because they had money to pay.

    • Ivan Burrows

      Kirstie Mamoyo Rogers I agree, 10,000’s of people are going to leave university with a pointless degree and a heap of debt, we would be far better off guiding them into vocational training. A degree is only worth something when it is rare, when everyone has one their value diminishes.

    • Spyros Kouvoussis

      Ivan Burrows if you are rich, because i cannot pay it on my own. if you are not rich, you shouldn’t pay it.

    • Spyros Kouvoussis

      Ivan Burrows i don’t usually call names on the internet but this comment totally deserves the prize of this week stupidest comment i read. I am not even going to tell you why you are wrong, it’s that obvious.

  55. Andrea Brown

    Simple answer is yes. However resources should be targetted at the sciences, mathematics and engineering.

  56. Christine Clifford

    It’s an investment in the future of course it should be free for the learner. We all pay in or should especially global corporations and the top 10% wealthiest. We all benefit

  57. Anna Maria Kollatou

    Of course education should be free! Everyone should have the opportunity to have access to knowledge. Universities though have a lot of expenses. In my country part of taxes are invested into universities from the state. But not enough resources are available in this way. It would be more appropriate for me if industries supported economically universities because in the end industries are the ones that benefit directly from innovation and research. For example, a technical university should be supported by the construction industry, car industry etc.

  58. Gioacchino Giorgio Nastasi

    My response is Yes . We need to give the opportunity to go to the University for All the Youths who want to do it..Probably this would be economically compatible for members of public universities where the expense would be lower because it is mostly borne by the state ..

  59. Henrique Saias

    It is the best investment a country can make, it allows people to make it in live independently of their family fortune without limiting their future with the burden of debt even before they are productive. It moves civilization forward. The only people against it are rich people afraid that poor guys do better in life breaking power perpetuation circles.

  60. Yannick Cornet

    In Denmark not only university is free but students get a kind of salary, 1000eur per month for up to 7 years. That ensures a highly educated population that has taken the time to really find their calling, which keeps motivation and salaries high, and therefore translate into high tax revenues. It’s a virtuous cycle few countries understand http://www.su.dk

    • Meiyin Lin

      Indeed. University education is not free. The question should be “who should be paying for university education?”

  61. Franck Legon

    Free with access granted only to students showing required capabilities and motivation.

  62. Carl Sebastian Steenekamp

    No. Higher education is a priviledge, not a right. For the academically inclined, maybe, or a discount, but definitely not free for all students. They will just begin taking advantage of the university.

  63. Meiyin Lin

    Consider the professor/staff salary, building, equipments, university education is expensive. University education is not free, the question should be who is paying for it.

    University education is a privilege. It is unfair and certainly not right that taxpayers (many of them are even less privileged) paying for the privileged.

  64. Antoine Che

    Public Universities should have all their lectures available on line and accessible world-wide since the extra cost for doing so is not substantial

  65. George Graham

    Tuition Fees in the United Kingdom should be reduced back down to £3,000 a year to deal with the rising student debts that our graduates are picking up and having to deal with in later life. Debt made by Stident Loans have been on a constant rise since 2011.

  66. Terry

    Thoughts on a means tested system? A percentage of parents earnings?

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