As an international undergraduate student in the UK, the cost of higher education has been central to the choices I have made about my education. As I was considering where to apply, tuition alongside the financial support available was a big deciding factor for me. Now as I am working towards completing my final year, the question of money is yet again at the forefront of my mind as I consider options for further study and reflect back on my undergraduate experience. Intuitively, the idea of a tuition-free university experience seems like the most fair and reasonable approach to the provision of higher education. Coming from my home country of Finland, I assumed that my belief was universally shared. To my surprise, this idea is not as common as I expected: only 8 of the 36 OECD countries subsidise public education fully and thus charge no tuition fees. I want to take a closer look at the debate around the price of higher education and its implications, and examine my belief that higher education should be universally tuition-free.
There are many reasons why I am advocating for tuition-free higher education. The benefits of attaining a degree in higher education remain high, as the OECD reports that adults with a degree in higher education will earn 56% more on average than adults who only completed secondary education. This idea is engraved into our academic institutions, and during the end of my secondary education further study was presented as the only reasonable option to pursue in order to guarantee future success. Given the value of higher education, pursuing a just society necessitates that access to higher education is available to all. Indeed, one of the key reasons I believe higher education should be free is that it removes barriers for prospective students from disadvantaged backgrounds. High tuition costs limit many low-income students from being able to participate and complete a degree, which actively works against social mobility and perpetuates a system of inequality.
That said, many governments provide grants, scholarships, and most importantly student loans as a way to support and enable students from all economic backgrounds to attend higher education institutions. Though these systems enable many students to gain access to said institutions, they still do not address inequality in the system.
Let's take the popular topic of student debt. The pressure students feel because of their loans, in an already competitive environment, is dangerous and most definitely affects the mental health of many of my peers. Meanwhile, there are students who are able to complete their degrees without incurring debt and therefore graduate in a more economically secure position. The Intergenerational Foundation found that at least 10% of the wealthiest students from the UK have their fees paid upfront, thus avoiding any potential debt and the stress it may evoke. So, even though loans and grants are building blocks for economically accessible education, tuition-free degrees have the potential to deliver real equality of opportunity by allowing all graduates to begin from the same debt-free position.
However, it is important to note that ‘free’ higher education is never really 'free'. It simply entails that it’s free for the students attending and is instead paid for by taxpayers. The big question here is: why should taxpayers pay for higher education instead of students themselves?
Of course, the critics of free higher education believe taxation is not the answer. They point out that using taxation as a means to provide tuition-free education is regressive, in that it disproportionately delivers more public funding to benefit higher-income families than to benefit low-income families. Currently students whose parents have degrees are much more likely to pursue higher education and therefore end up benefiting from any subsidised higher education. Following this line of thought, it seems unfair to tax everyone only to benefit those who are already well-off, or at least more likely to be well-off after graduation. This criticism is interesting, as well as quite widespread, however it seems to be scraping the issue at a very surface level.
If all students are able to attend university for free, not only would it remove barriers for low-income students, but it could also incentivise higher income students and their families to support the strengthening of public institutions. The policy proposals for free higher education, more often than not, are accompanied by plans for progressive taxation which addresses inequalities between different economic classes. Could this have the potential to lead to transformative change in the way we value higher education?
Primary and secondary education are mostly publicly funded, because education at this level is considered to benefit everyone in society. Then why does higher education so rarely fit into this category? I was always told going to study in the UK would be an investment into my future and that it would pay off when I am able to land a good and respected graduate position. Rarely was the value of learning, challenging my thinking, and widening my worldview at the centre of these conversations. It always came down to my role in the labour market. I believe this disconnect between how we view higher education is the essential question of the entire debate. Should we transform the way we view higher education as an investment?
Thinking about a higher education degree as an investment, students invest in their future by paying tuition fees in order to improve their human capital and employability. Inevitably, many higher education institutions are therefore focused on teaching skills, providing knowledge and creating environments for networking. This view that pursuing higher education as strictly an investment into one’s future prospects seems to miss an important question about the intrinsic value of education. Higher education should also be viewed as a fundamental opportunity that everybody should have access to, as knowledge and learning are in their own right valuable. I have definitely enhanced skills that make me more employable, made connections that will benefit me in the future, and learnt valuable knowledge. But this shouldn't be what higher education is only about. A sole focus on these elements means a great deal of other invaluable experiences of my education go completely unacknowledged. I have been able to develop and question my own thinking. I have engaged with and learned to understand people completely different from myself. I have continued to appreciate lifelong learning. The intrinsic value here, irrespective of my role in the labour market, lies in the experiences and opportunities that have fundamentally shaped me as a person, rather than as a 'graduate'. Tuition-fees perpetuate a system that values the human capital benefits of education above all else.
Making higher education free for prospective students would encourage the pursuit of learning and transform the way in which we view higher education: not as an investment, but rather as an opportunity.
Written by Auni Siukosaari. Edited by Aada Orava and Robert Fletcher.
The views and opinions presented in this article belong to Auni Siukosaari — not TEDxWarwick.
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