Tuition fees 'force students to pick degrees by salary prospects'

Canadian academic argues people should get access to free higher education in return for their contribution to society

May 26, 2016
One way street road sign, United Kingdom
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High tuition fees unjustly limit young people’s freedom to choose university courses that may not lead to well-paid jobs, according to an academic.

A new pamphlet by Christopher Martin, assistant professor of education at the University of British Columbia, makes the case for higher education to be free for undergraduates and funded instead through general taxation.

However, he does not believe that access to university should be unlimited, and instead proposes a model whereby each citizen receives an initial “allocation” as they leave compulsory schooling, followed by additional entitlements to study for people who can demonstrate a “consistent record of contribution to society”.

The pamphlet, titled Should students have to borrow? and published by the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, argues that the debt financing model of higher education in England and the US has left “an entire generation of liberal democratic students…burdened with worrying levels of debt”.

This system, according to Dr Martin, forces students who are not independently wealthy “to pursue their wellbeing in a narrow manner” and to select courses that are likely to give them the best chance of getting a job that would allow them to repay the debt. The consequence is that the other potential benefits of higher education, such as improving students’ understanding of the society they live in and their ability to make a positive contribution to it, are disregarded.

“For many people, studying a subject that interests them at university level is not currently a choosable option because they are forced to think about higher education in purely economic terms,” Dr Martin writes.

“For people to have positive freedom of educational choice, they must be able to value, and be able to afford to value, the acquisition of knowledge and understanding for its contribution to personal autonomy, independently of its impact on employability. The consumer choice model militates strongly against this.”

He suggests that his idea of allocations could allow citizens to be “rewarded for their autonomous pursuit of worthwhile goals of all kinds, rather than discouraged from pursuing all but the most remunerative ones”. Such allocations could be introduced for the least well-off in the first instance if a universal system cannot be afforded, he adds.

Dr Martin concludes: “In a democracy, higher education should be a social right, not a luxury for which students must pay…Such a system is essential if we want to make sure that every citizen has a fair shot at a personally autonomous life.” 

chris.havergal@tesglobal.com

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