Should university courses be free?

Free higher education has many societal benefits, but that doesn’t answer the crucial question: do you have to pay for it?

Quality higher education can strengthen a society’s human capital, generate wealth and generally make things better. But should the taxpayer or the user pay the bill?

The death last year of the champion of free education, former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, and the steps taken by German universities to abolish tuition fees have highlighted a centuries-old debate: University students should- do they pay for their courses?

While it is widely accepted in countries like the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom that students must pay at least part of the cost of their degrees, free tuition is still a part of it. landscape in European countries like Germany. and Sweden. Governments face tough funding decisions in a debate that straddles politics and economics.

DR MICHAEL SPENCE,
VICE CHANCELLOR

University of Sydney, www.sydney.edu.au

In a Perfect World, Michael Spence believes higher education should be free, along with generous government funding to support university research. After all, he benefits from the Whitlam era in Australia and his commitment to a free university system. However, the growing size of universities imposes different financial realities.

“There has been a massive expansion of the system and for one reason or another the taxpayer is not prepared to foot the bill,” said the University of Sydney vice-chancellor.

“And that leaves us in a situation where not only research, but teaching, is underfunded.”

While some critics argue that higher education tuition fees discriminate against students from disadvantaged backgrounds, Spence argues that a fair payment system means universities could potentially support more students from underprivileged backgrounds. disadvantaged areas. The latest figures show that only 7 percent of students at the University of Sydney come from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.

In 2014, the Australian Senate rejected pressure from the Abbott government to deregulate universities and let them set their own fees. This decision has cast a growing cloud of uncertainty over the funding of higher education institutions.

Spence argues that deregulation would actually result in a more resource-rich system that could invest more in quality education and create a more extensive scholarship program for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Deregulating university fees means charging people who can afford to pay to support better education for everyone, and also to support a greater diversity of students in our universities,” he says.

While tuition fees have come under scrutiny, Spence says it’s not always the tuition fees that make things so difficult for students financially – the most overwhelming issue is the high cost of living.

“So, especially for students from rural and regional communities, who might want to come to the city to study, the cost of living in a city like Sydney is prohibitive,” he says.

Spence says that if the status quo continues for funding for higher education institutions in Australia, the country’s university system will face even greater pressure on quality and become more dependent on the tuition fees of international students. He describes this dependence on international students as “morally dangerous” and “unsustainable”.

Dr Michael Spence is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney and a leader in the field of intellectual property theory.

PROFESSOR BRUCE CHAPMAN
ECONOMIST, HIGHER EDUCATION POLICY ADVISOR

Australian National University, www.anu.edu.au

Bruce Chapman of the Australian National University wants to disillusion people with the notion of “free” university education. Even if students do not pay tuition fees, the cost of institutions and their courses must be borne by governments and, ultimately, taxpayers.

“In economics, there is no such thing as ‘free’, he says.

“The right economic question is ‘who should pay and how much should they pay?’ A system where students pay nothing is a system where the taxpayer pays almost 100 percent.

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Chapman is known as the father of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS), the world’s first income-based lending program to pay public sector higher education tuition fees. Introduced in Australia in 1989, loans legally require graduates to repay fees directly through the tax system.

Chapman believes it is “inequitable and unfair” for taxpayers, especially those in lower socioeconomic groups, to cover the full cost of people’s college degrees. This is especially true, he says, given research which shows that over a lifetime, the pre-tax incomes of graduates will exceed those of non-graduates by an average of A $ 1 million to A $ 1.5 million. .

“If a system is fully funded by the government, that means that part of the taxes of people who do not go to college – and it will still be in the order of 70% of the adult population in total – used for the private benefits of graduates.

Chapman says the Australian experience showed that people from lower socioeconomic groups were less likely to go to college even when there were no tuition fees.

He considers it ironic that the most vocal advocates of free university education tend to come from the left wing of society.

“And yet, it is a policy that essentially distributes, on average, resources to the most privileged.”

Chapman has studied the German model of free education and, although hesitant to criticize the country’s system, he believes it was adopted “because of politics” rather than for a logical economic argument.

“If I think of it generically, the case for introducing income-tested loans is as strong around the world as it was in Australia,” he concludes.

Professor Bruce Chapman has served as a higher education finance consultant to the World Bank and governments around the world.

PROFESSOR JÜRGEN HESSELBACH
GERMAN TEACHER, MECHANICAL ENGINEER

Technische Universität Braunschweig, www.tu-braunschweig.de

While the tuition fees had been seen by some as a way to alleviate the persistent underfunding at German universities, they did not do the job, says Professor Jürgen Hesselbach from Technische Universität Braunschweig in Lower Saxony.

Now, classes at all German universities are theoretically free, after the recent abolition of tuition fees in Lower Saxony, the last of the seven German states to charge for higher education. But that doesn’t solve the problem either, according to Hesselbach.

He notes that, while not being a panacea, tuition fees have at least helped to improve course delivery and student outcomes in a sector that had gone through the Bologna process, creating a common European university education system.

“For the first time, we had relevant funding for improving study conditions and for the first time students had an influence on the university budget,” he says.

Hesselbach acknowledges that publicly funded education is a popular concept, but since a college degree offers students the prospect of better life opportunities, he thinks it’s fair to ask them for a financial contribution.

There is one condition, however: “The prerequisite is an advanced scholarship system to ensure no deterrence of lower socio-economic groups,” explains Hesselbach.

While the return to free tuition could, in theory, put more financial pressure on German universities and impact the quality of tuition, Hesselbach believes this will not happen in Lower Saxony, as the government of the State pays full compensation linked to the number of students. However, this may not always be the case.

“It is impossible to say whether the state government will maintain compensation in a difficult budgetary situation,” he notes.

Hesselbach said the jury questioned whether waiving tuition fees would allow better access to higher education for all members of society.

“The effect of tuition fees on the willingness to study lower socioeconomic groups is controversial in science. The small amount of 500 € [about A$750] per semester can play a role. But it is not only financial aspects that influence access to higher education.

Regardless of the pros and cons, Hesselbach expects the fee debate to remain on the agenda in Germany.

“We respect the parliamentary decision, but our preference has always been to continue with tuition fees as a stable source of long-term funding. [rather than] variable public and external funding.

Professor Jürgen Hesselbach is President of the Technische Universität Braunschweig and President of the National Conference for Higher Education in Lower Saxony, Germany.

This article is from the February 2015 issue of INTHEBLACK.


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