Should higher education be free? An analysis of its benefits and drawbacks
Higher education is one of the most valuable and useful assets of the society, which are required to propel the development of science, medicine, technology, arts, and other fields. Yet it should not be free for all. To be sure, it is important to guarantee education access to all people who see in it an option to boost their life opportunities, and every government should concern about not only giving more access but also fostering this idea in people’s mind. Making education totally free, however, can cause problems of financial sustainability, reduction in education quality, and even paradoxically limit the access of people in the same way high tuition fees do it today.
Value of education
Let’s start by saying that a better-educated society is crucial for innovation in every field. True is that some astonishing breakthroughs in technology or awarded art pieces have been achieved by people without a college degree, but that's the exception and not the rule. Besides, these facts are frequently taken out of context. Many of these brilliant minds were self-taught persons. Steve Jobs – creator of the first Apple computer–, Bill Gates – founder of Microsoft–, Paul Allen – co-founder of Microsoft–, Quentin Tarantino – successful screenwriter and winner of two Academy awards– or Mark Zuckerberg –creator of Facebook– were all revolutionary men of their time. All of them were college or even high school dropouts who started impressive careers that have given them more recognition and revenue than that attained by most of the college graduates. However, all of them were strictly devoted people to their fields who indeed developed a higher knowledge just that not through the traditional education system. The truth is that despite these unique examples, the reality shows that in average people with the most successful careers are college graduates (Wai and Rinderman). In addition, apart from the economic and professional success, education has contributed in intangible ways to the formation of more well-rounded individuals, who happen to be better decision makers too (Schilling). In summary, all the above sharply reinforces the view that education is an essential value of society, which can more likely lead its members to achieve healthy and successful lives. But now, it is worth asking, is free education the way to guarantee its benefits for society?
The debate: should it be free?
As we discussed education can offer rewarding opportunities for individuals, but also it represents the basis for critical societal characteristics that determine their progress such as innovation, entrepreneurship, or scientific development. In that sense, education can only make sense when it can foster those traits, and that only comes with a high-quality educational system. In that regard, surprisingly, countries with tuition-free universities such as the Northern European countries, which make substantial investments in higher education (Figure 1), only have 21 universities among the first 100 top universities around the world according to the Shanghai ranking (“Academic Ranking of World Universities 2017”) (Netherlands 4, Germany 4, Sweden 4, France 3, Belgium 2, Denmark 2, Norway 1, Finland 1). Indeed, a close look appears to suggest that the higher the state funding is, the fewer universities tend to rank high. In contrast, more than 70 universities from countries in which the public funding is 50% or less appear among the 100 most outstanding academic institutions (Australia 6, UK 9, USA 48, Canada 4, Japan 3, Israel 1). The same situation is observed when comparing the Latin American countries that appear in the OCDE figure: Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, and Chile. The regional ranking QS Latin American University Ranking shows that within the top 20 universities in the region the distribution is as follows: Argentina 1, Mexico, 2, Colombia 4, Chile 4. Contrary to what people might think, a higher state funding in universities does not translate in better institutions.
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Figure 1. Public and private spending on tertiary education according to the OECD in 2014. Source: (OECD)
The cost of free education is also a concern even within the countries that have this type of system, after all nothing is really free. Among the countries in which higher education had been traditional without tuition fees, we have Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Germany. Until 2006 all of them offered no-cost education to all people regardless their nationality. However, things started to change recently. First, it was Denmark – in 2006 – then, Sweden – in 2011 –, and finally Finland – in 2017– the ones that introduced fees for international students coming from outside the European Union. The debate has been held also in Norway for a while, but for now, education remains free for all students. In Finland, the most recent country joining the no free-for-all universities club, the main dissatisfaction corresponded to politicians and local taxpayers who complained about having to fund international students who also were enjoying social benefits at the state expense (Välimaa). Additionally, the fact that less than 50% of the foreign students secured a job in Finland after graduation (Center-for-international-mobility) prompted the question if the tradeoff between the costs and the benefits was favorable for the finish government. In general, these recent events in these countries – Denmark, Sweden, and Finland – have been resisted and have also risen concerns if this might be a prelude to the start of charging fees to national students as well, however, that does not seem feasible in the near future. In this case, it is clear that making education free comes with a cost that not everybody is willing to share and that sometimes overflow the financial capabilities of the States, whose protective measures at the end generates the same uncertainty in educational access for the population.
Another aspect claimed by the advocates of free higher education is that this system reduces the inequality and promotes a collective growth. Although it is true that with more college students a collective growth is facilitated, two main points are not frequently considered when making this assertion. First, no studies have measured clearly if a national job market has the capacity to absorb the overwhelming number of professionals in every field that a free-education system can supply. If a lot of professionals are graduated every year, but they cannot stay in the local job market, then they will surely emigrate to other locations that might be even in another country. In that sense, taxpayers and governors would have to accept that they are paying for a global education beyond their borders. Although this might be a valid position, it would need to be discussed and accepted beforehand. One of the few situations in which a government has tried to keep people within its territory to recover the education investment from the college graduates is Cuba. In this case, however, a lot of dissatisfaction about the job positions or payments after graduation have been reported, with a lot of professionals performing jobs for which they feel overqualified, and that they take due to the existence of an economy unable to offer enough positions for its professionals (Garcia). Second, if we consider a free-higher education system in which the student acceptance rate to each field is conditioned by the availability of several factors such as facilities, staff, resources, the reality of the job market positions, or even political views, then we would need to agree that is more than likely that not everybody might end up studying at the university. In other words, free education does not necessarily mean admission is guaranteed for everyone, but only that people admitted will not have to pay. This limited capacity of the educational system could originate a competition among applicants that might favor people with more economic resources, who would be able to provide their children with private tutors, paid internships, and other privileges that low-income people could not afford. True is that it could, however, offer opportunities to some bright and deserving minds within people with limited resources, but this could be achieved too with a scholarship program focused on this population group.
Finally, if limited seats were not a problem, it is conceivable that with a free of cost university system the enrollment rate among young population should be always close to 100%. Nonetheless, according to the World Data Bank data in 2014 (UNESCO) in countries such as Cuba, Germany, Norway, or Sweden, where there is free education for national students, the enrollment rate was 41, 65, 62, and 77%, respectively. On the contrary, in countries with high tuition fees such as New Zealand, the United States, Australia, or South Korea, the enrollment rate was of 81, 87, 90, and 94%, respectively. This relatively low enrollment rate trend is not consistent in every country with a free college system, for instance, countries such as Finland or Denmark presented high enrollment rates – 87% and 82% – comparable to the ones described for the group of countries with high university tuition fees. However, it is worth asking why this phenomenon is happening, and if maybe the relative easiness to obtain a college degree in such a system is discouraging people to pursue this path.
After all this discussion, it is evident that free education has its caveats. On the other side, high tuition fees do not necessarily represent the solution either, with extraordinary costs that can only widen the gap between socioeconomic classes. One possible solution to this dilemma might be the implementation of a system with a tuition fee cost depending upon the socioeconomic status of each applicant. In that way, tuition fees can still represent a funding source for the university and can constitute a key factor in their sustainability. From my personal experience in Colombia, this system has allowed a lot of students complete a bachelor degree in a public institution only paying a reasonable amount every semester according to their financial reality. In that way, despite the lack of state funding that several public universities have faced over the past two decades, the number of students has grown, and the quality of the public institutions competes with that of the private ones (Arambulé). Additionally, a system of self-funding that includes private and public loans, as well as scholarships for gifted students, have transferred part of the costs from the State and taxpayers to the student and their families. Finally, the implementation of continuing education and consulting services have allowed the universities to create new revenue sources that have helped with their own sustainability. All in all, this set of measurements has dramatically increased the enrollment rate in Colombia from 9 to 55% in the period 1980-2015 (UNESCO). This is a 6-fold increase, which is astonishing if we compare this growth in the enrollment rate with other countries such as the United States (1.6), Finland (2.6), or Sweden (1.7).
In summary, free education can bring problems about financial sustainability, education quality, and even equalitarian access. Tuition fees can solve part of the problem giving universities more independence regardless the economic or even political situation of the government, which can also boost the quality of the academic institutions. Despite this, extraordinarily high tuition fees can generate discrimination based on the socioeconomic position of the students or their families. In that sense, the implementation of a tuition fee cost depending on the financial situation of each applicant along with other independent measures to generate revenue within the universities can increase people access to education, and in turn, can promote a better understanding of the education cost in the population. In conclusion, this mixed public-private system might be the end of the free or not free dilemma and guarantee the equity that free education promised a long time ago.
“Academic Ranking of World Universities 2017.” Shangai Ranking, 2017, http://www.shanghairanking.com/ARWU2017.html.
Arambulé, W. “Universidades Colombianas En El Ranking Mundial de Investigación [Colombian Universities in the World Rank of Education].” Portal Universia, 14 June 2017, http://noticias.universia.net.co/educacion/noticia/2017/06/14/1153366/21-mejores-universidades-colombianas-metodologia-investigativa.html.
Center-for-international-mobility. What Do We Know about the Economic Impact of International Higher Education Students? Finish National Agency For Education. 2014.
Garcia, Ivan. “Profesionales Intentan Abrirse Paso En El Trabajo Privado [Professionals Trying to Break through to the Private Job Market].” Diario de Cuba, 30 June 2014, http://www.diariodecuba.com/cuba/1404112884_9286.html.
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Schilling, Heather. “The Anti-College Movement: Finding the Song in the Clamor.” Perspectives on Contemporary Issues, edited by Katherine Anne Ackley, 8th editio, Cengage Learning, 2017, pp. 234–39.
UNESCO. “Gross Enrollment Ratio, Tetiary, Both Sexes (%).” The World Bank Data, 2017, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.TER.ENRR?view=map&year=1980.
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Wai, J., and H. Rinderman. “What Goes into High Educational and Occupational Achievement? Education, Brains, Hard Work, Networks, and Other Factors.” High Ability Studies, vol. 28, no. 1, 2017, pp. 127–45.