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19 January 2007

Should higher education really be free for all?

The president of Bristol Student's Union says higher education shouldn't be free.

By Ben Ullmann

Given the title of this blog, I’ll start with something that could be considered radical. Higher Education shouldn’t be free. Controversial? Maybe. But certainly a point of view that is held by many in the student movement although isn’t always heard.

Most would agree that there isn’t sufficient funding for the sector and that extra income has to come from somewhere. Some Vice-Chancellors think it should come directly from students through unregulated and variable fees. By contrast the National Union of Students (NUS) thinks it should all come from public money through taxation of the rich. Like a clichéd politician, I think there is a middle way that is both fair and funded.

The argument against free education is this; it’s not free! Graduates are obviously good for the economy and society and there is some mileage in suggesting that Universities and individual degrees should be government subsidised. But the money has to come from somewhere and do we really think it’s fair to ask the majority of general taxpayers who didn’t directly benefit from Higher Education to completely pay for those who did?

It’s not unreasonable to suggest that those who directly benefit from the system should make a level of contribution to the costs of their degree given the potential return after they graduate. Clearly there is a debate as to where the level is set but any contribution is an acknowledgement of a duty to put something in for what you get out. It might go some way to combat the culture of knowing ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’.

Asking students to contribute to the costs of their degree is not a simple venture and with it come some serious caveats. We must recognise that for some in our society, any kind of contribution is not possible. At that point we must champion and prioritise the maxim that entrance to University should be based on your ability to achieve and not on your ability to pay. Otherwise we will price people out of a degree and more often than not they will be from lower socio-economic backgrounds and low participation neighbourhoods. If we are to be serious about widening participation in our Universities then we need to assure that there is funding for those who can’t afford to pay.

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Some proponents of free education assume that it is the only way to make education fair. The virtue of free education is that it enables access for all. But asking some students who can afford to pay fees whilst paying for those who can’t afford it through grants and bursaries is also a system which enables access for all. Surely we can imagine a society in which those who can afford to pay study alongside those who cannot? Isn’t that Socialism 101? ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his (or her!) need’ provides for a system that is fair but also properly funded.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems, but they are with the implementation rather than the theory. If fees are set too high and are not perceived as value for money, students who are required to pay will think twice before applying because of the debts associated with university life. Furthermore it is no use providing grants, bursaries and scholarships for students who aren’t required to pay if they are not aware that they exist. With the advent of £3000 fees we are already seeing that Universities are under-spending on their provisions for bursaries, not because there aren’t enough students who need them but because many are not aware that they are eligible.

A system of contribution will not be fair and will not enable access for all until issues like this are addressed but resorting to pipe dream lobbying for free education isn’t the answer. We can make Higher Education both fair and funded by asking those who can, to contribute.

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