Free education benefits both the individual and society

07.06.2017

The worn-out discussion on the alleged benefits of tuition fees surfaced yet again this spring, when the Research Institute of the Finnish Economy (Etla) published a pamphlet on the funding of universities. The pamphlet proposes general tuition fees as a means to compensate the cuts made to universities’ funding. Etla suggests that the fees would not endanger ‘equality of opportunity’, as the student loan system would take care of that.

Later, in a seminar on tuition fees organised by the Finnish Economic Association, Professor of Public Economics Markus Jäntti from the University of Helsinki challenged Etla’s claims, referring to them as weakly-argued opportunism. In fact, no evidence exists that the tuition fees proposed by Etla would guarantee social mobility, and the entire concept of ‘equality of opportunity’ has not even been defined academically. The seminar ended in an argument, which resulted in Jäntti’s decision to pack his bags and return to his professorship in Stockholm University. Jäntti’s departure is a loss for Finnish public discussion. There is a risk of a delusion forming of tuition fees having undivided support from economists. This notion is fuelled by parties such as the neoliberal think tank Libera: its podcast consisted of three people who supported the fees to begin with patting each other on the back. Moreover, tuition fees have less support outside economics, in the field of social policy, for instance.

Up to this point, free education has guaranteed that the most willing and talented people in Finland have been able to continue onto the highest level of education regardless of their family background. Etla’s proposal would smash this premise. We already know that people with lower socioeconomic status avoid taking student loans and would rather work to finance their studies. Even if the repayment of student loans would be tied to future income, as Etla proposes, it would still have negative impact on students who avoid taking risks.

Knowledge of the fact that acquiring a degree would automatically result in a large debt burden would direct students to apply to fields of study where graduates have as large salaries as possible. Besides competent corporate lawyers, Finland will, however, continue to need just as competent librarians and kindergarten teachers. Only economists could think that the value of a profession can be defined by how much it pays. Tuition fees can also be predicted to cause brain drain to countries that offer excellent free education, such as Sweden and Germany.

Tuition fees are presented as unproblematic additional funding for the higher education sector. This idea rests on the naïve presumption that the state’s budget funding to universities would not decrease in exactly the same proportion as the collected tuition fees would fatten the university’s coffers. This has already happened in Australia, for instance. No political mechanism has been developed to ensure that the Australian way would not also be the Finnish way. Fresh in the minds of all students is just how much value the promises of politicians have when it comes to education.

Minna Suorsa
HYY Board Member
minna.suorsa@hyy.fi

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