A question is echoing in politics around the world: should university be free? Some countries already offer tuition-free, or nearly so, higher education at public universities, including Norway, Finland, and Germany. This has brought up heated debates in other countries, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, questioning whether these policies should be implemented in their own countries. In fact, it was a central value of United States Senator Bernie Sander’s 2016 presidential campaign and likely contributed to the massive support he received from university students and young adults.
Proponents of free public education believe it would make higher education more accessible to students. They tout the benefits of a more educated population, including a more skilled workforce and a more competitive economy. Many advocates for the policy believe that by providing free public universities, students would not have to take out loans and could therefore contribute more towards the economy. There is also a large social justice component to the argument, stating that the soaring cost of higher education makes pursuing university prohibitive to lower-income students. Some even argue that in countries like the United States, the money saved through reducing defaults on student loans and the money added to the economy by an increased number of college graduates outweighs the cost of government-funded public universities, meaning implementing this policy would ultimately benefit the government and stimulate the economy.
Opponents of the policy generally base their argument on the idea that if students do not pay for university through tuition, the cost of running these institutions must come from somewhere, namely increased taxes. Another argument is that making public universities free would lower the quality of education, as governments would not be able to support the high costs of faculty salaries and research at such institutions. In an effort to preserve the quality of education, it may make public universities more selective to control the number of enrolled students. This would mean only the best academically prepared students, who often tend to be the wealthiest, would be able to attend university. Others believe that paying tuition acts as an incentive for students to work harder.
Students themselves are weighing in on the issue from both sides. The UK student forum, The Student Room, allows students to anonymously discuss issues concerning all aspects of university life, from how to go about making friends during your first year to what to do if you are unsatisfied with the subject you’ve chosen to study. Naturally, the idea of free public university is a point of discussion for this group.
Many of the students supporting free public university argue that it allows more students to obtain a higher education, therefore making the country as a whole more educated and well rounded. Some students even recounted anecdotes, with a Scottish student (where undergraduate programmes are tuition-free) stating “..I probably wouldn’t have gone to university if it wasn’t free. I’m a straight A student in ally my classes at school and at uni… The student debt in England and Wales seems crazy to me, and there’s no way I could have justified going to uni if I was going to leave with that much debt”.
Opponents argued that it would not be sustainable to make university free. They claim that since not everyone goes to university, it would not be fair to make all taxpayers subsidize the cost of students that do. One student states “Why should [someone who doesn’t go to university] pay more in tax so someone else can go to Uni? One should pay for their own higher education knowing it will improve their employability chances in the future. Fundamentally it is an investment and it is up to you to decide whether it is worth that investment”.
The majority of the students, however, did not fully agree or disagree with the idea of free public university. While most believed that the cost of higher education was too high, they did not believe that university should be completely free. They offered a series of compromises, including reducing the rate of tuition or making tuition rates reflective of each individual family’s income to make university more accessible to lower-income students. Another suggestion was to make certain majors, such as STEM studies, economics, or medicine, free while charging tuition for liberal arts studies, arguing that these areas are more likely to contribute directly to the economy.
We know that many of our own volunteers are university students, and this is likely an issue on your mind. So, we want to know: what are your views on implementing free public universities?