“Asking students who should pay for their education is like asking shoppers who should pay for what they’ve just bought,” commented one professional when I started asking students for their opinions about university funding.
But this analogy, which places a fee-paying student in a simple customer or consumer role, cannot be quite right.
It’s not clear whether the commenter thought students would be biased in favour of students paying for their own education – it is reasonable to think that shoppers who have decided to spend money are indeed happy to pay for whatever they have just bought – or whether he thought that the answers would be biased the other way, as the prospect of someone else paying for the things you would happily spend money on is even better than paying for it yourself.
Either way, in a transitional period of their life, a student is not just a shopper. Soon enough, a student will graduate and will likely become a tax-paying member of society. It turns out that students, perhaps anticipating this transition, have a far more nuanced and complex reaction to the question of how their own education should be funded.
Student protests around the world, including in Chile and Quebec, may seem to demonstrate a unanimous student demand for free university tuition – that is, publicly funded tuition – or at least low tuition fees that are heavily subsidised by public funds.
But as national approaches to university funding polarise, with England and Australia expecting more private contributions from the students, and Chile and Germany putting a greater burden on public funds, the students themselves are also recognising this tension.
Some, such as UCL geography student Laura, vaguely support the current UK system, which uses public funds for loans and makes repayment contingent on the graduate’s income.
She says: “I don’t have a problem with students being asked to pay for their degrees – particularly under the current system where very few will actually pay back the amount they owe (including interest). I feel like students benefit from the value of their degree in terms of greater earning potential and this can be recognised by the fees.”
In a poll of 835 students on The Student Room, 32.81 per cent said that their degrees should be funded under the current system of income-contingent loans to be repaid, but 39.76 per cent voted for more public funding to lower the "sticker price" of degrees. Surprisingly, only 25 per cent said that "free" tuition supported entirely by public funds would be a better model.
Some student contributors to a parallel discussion on the forum saw their own education as a privilege that “others” – namely, taxpayers – should not have to pay for.
One student said: “Why should others be forced to pay for my education? If our society actually believed that they had a responsibility to pay for the higher education of our students, we wouldn’t need the government to force people to.”
Many respondents took issue with the inference that whatever the general public believed their responsibility to be determined what their responsibility should be for funding education, but the original student insisted that “coercion is no basis for the funding of education”.
For the most part, students, like policymakers, are preoccupied with the question of who benefits from a university education, and whether these benefits can be quantified in any meaningful way, or translated into a “fair” ratio of public to private funding.
On one side of the debate, some students believe that individual benefits do not trickle up to benefit society as a whole, concluding that public funds should not support university education:
“University does not benefit society as much as you think. There’s research, STEM careers, teaching and a few other things – but the vast majority of it just ‘fills the gap’ between formal education and work,” wrote one student.
“No one is entitled to a free degree and no one should be. It is morally wrong for people to pay for other people’s education which will not benefit them in any way and they will have nothing to do with them.”
But far more common is the idea that there are social “returns” from investing in individuals’ university education, such that public funding in education is an investment for society.
London medical student Katie explains: “I think in some cases, taxpayers do get a lot of benefit from university-educated citizens, especially from university courses that then fast track people into public service professions (NHS, Emergency Services, government work).
“It makes sense for taxpayers to invest in students that will eventually be in charge of their care and wellbeing.”
Others, such as Lu Allan, who benefits from free tuition in Scotland, see a less direct relationship between individual and social benefits of university education:
“University can be a route to a stable, secure, rewarding job; an opportunity to explore in greater depth subjects you’re passionate about and interested in; or an extremely fortunate combination of both,” she says.
“At university you can learn to live independently, get involved in an array of enriching cultural activities and meet many different kinds of people you may otherwise have had no idea about. In my area of study particularly (arts and social sciences), university allows you to think critically about the world around you and form your own ideas and beliefs independently.
“A society where anyone has access to university education is once which can reach its full potential.”
While students may not have a clear grasp on any precise measure of individual and social benefits produced by their own education, Walter McMahon, emeritus professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, calculated that 52 per cent of higher education benefits in the US are “public” or “non-market” goods, while 48 per cent are private benefits to the individual in the form of higher salaries.
However, the relationship between public and private benefits, and who should be responsible for promoting each, is still a matter of contention.
Against the grain entirely, Ben Studebaker, an American PhD student in politics and international relations at the University of Cambridge, argues that it is the state’s responsibility to optimise the financial and professional benefits that individuals receive from a university education.
Whether a university degree does or does not benefit an individual, Ben says that the state should pay for this education in line with its responsibility to “create a skilled labour force that supplies workers who are capable of meeting economic needs”.
He says: “Charging tuition fees is wrong because it is a repudiation of the state’s responsibility to optimise its own labour force and because it disincentivises the decision by young people to optimise themselves.”
With notable exceptions, of which Ben is one, many students defer to the status quo in their own country to answer the question of who should be paying for their education.
On the student forum, a loan voice supporting free tuition originated from Norway, where public universities ask only a nominal administrative fee each semester, and education is supported entirely by public funds from a high-tax system.
Elisabeth, who benefited from free education in her home country, Austria, also believes that “education should be free and open to anyone”. She does worry about international students taking advantage of free education, only to return to their home countries without contributing to the country in which they were educated.
She says: “The main problem at my current university is that there are no quota regulations and that a considerable number of students coming from abroad return to their country after graduation, so the country's investment funded by taxes does not pay off in this case. As an example, in 2012 about 250 students were accepted for the psychology programme. Only 10 of them came from Austria, the others were all Germans.”
However, Italian graduate Carolina, who studied in London, feels that contribution to society can be measured across borders, disagreeing with a more general consensus that contributions are predominantly constituted by tax payments.
She explains: “If you move to another country within the EU, you’re still contributing to something that involves your country. Also, it’s good PR for a country to have a researcher keeping up their name abroad.”
Overall, students engage with complicated considerations around tax, the social and individual benefits of education, and who bears the responsibility to contribute to these benefits.
So asking them who should pay for their education is not as simple as asking shoppers who should pay for their purchases.
Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence suggests that, in the midst of all the considerations, students’ principles on the question of who should pay for education are at least in part informed by their own experience of paying, or not paying, tuition fees.
So in one sense, the shopping analogy may be on to something.