The argument for free third level education

The following article was originally written for the University Times, and published on May 16th.

In recent times, it has been popular to view education solely as a “personal investment”, and that the recipient alone should pay for it. This school of thought, although simplistic, is not entirely without its merits. Economic data shows that graduates earn higher salaries than non-graduates. Add to that the fact that Irish universities are experiencing a funding crisis, and it appears to be logical that students should pay for their third level education.

This market focused thinking is flawed however, because it focuses on the student, ignoring the wider social effects. This view is most prevalent within the Anglosphere, and has little currency in continental Europe – even among conservative countries such as Germany. Europe has perceived what we have failed to appreciate: that open access to higher education benefits even those who do not receive it.

Why is this? A highly educated country has the ability to attract and create much more lucrative industries than would otherwise be possible. Workers involved in such industries benefit from higher wages, as the neoliberals rightly conclude, yet they stop there. They do not assess the social impact of their greater purchasing power, particularly on those whom they rely on for goods and services. Low skilled sectors will benefit from the knock on effects to the economy.

Free education leads to innovation and employment, and it is impossible to fully assess its benefits in such a short article. The alternatives to it are poor, in my assessment, and rife with perverse incentives. Upfront fees are an unfair burden to place on students, particularly as they ignore the fact that even middle class families may simply baulk at the cost. Student loan schemes have failed in the United States, where cheap credit led to the cost of education to inflate enormously.

On a more practical level, the student loan and the graduate tax are both new forms of income tax. For it to be fair and equitable, the repayment schedule of the loan will have to correspond to the income of the borrower. As for the graduate tax, the keyword is in the name.

I will not bother spending much time explaining how both schemes create obvious perverse incentives. In a country with as long a history of emigration as Ireland, both schemes would be plagued by widespread payment avoidance, as demonstrated  by Australia. On a deeper level, they equally are unfair and unnecessary. How is it that some people, for no other reason than the period in which they were born, have benefited from free education while others have not?

If we are so truly focused on levying income tax under another name, then why not simply increase income tax? Why not allow graduates who already paid tuition and/or registration fees to get tax credits equal to their contribution? Why not solve the funding crisis overnight by increasing taxes, rather than complicating the issue to satisfy our Anglospheric  Groupthink?

The truth is that we introduced the free fees scheme because it appeared to be popular. As such it was poorly thought out. Now when confronted with our first problem, we seem predisposed to throwing it away. Rather than fixing our universities, we wish to break them even more. Yet again, we are closer to Boston than Berlin.

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