Lack of tuition fees and the illusion of equality

In societies, where tuition fees for higher education are in use, you rarely hear people say “entrance into university and graduating from university are difficult, but the part in between is easier”. This is not because it would be easier to get into universities with tuition fees, but graduation rarely poses a problem for the student. This is simply due to the fact that the students’ motivation rarely collapses when they receive their certificate of attendance, but they have to work hard in order to not have to pay tuition fees for additional years.

In Finland, the discussion regarding tuition fees is lagging. Arguments both for and against are hastily prepared, and it is rare to hear anything but comments exclaimed in a tumult of emotion. This is understandable. University education is not only a cost item at the time of acquisition, but it may have both positive and negative effects on the future economic well-being of the individual and the whole society. In this sense, higher education without tuition fees sounds like a smart and fair solution.

However, this is not necessarily the case if we take another look at the issue.

In fact, the basic aims of good higher education policy are quite simple: maximising equality and efficiency. In this case, efficiency refers to how current resources are used so that they produce financial growth in the future, securing the well-being of the society. Equality in education, on the other hand, should be seen as equality of opportunities. Ultimately, people wish for economic growth, or improved quality of life, as well as security, or the lack of uncertainty.

I would argue that our higher education system without tuition fees is everything but an efficient and equal system, and it does not, ultimately, meet people’s needs in life. Firstly, higher education funded with tax funds is basically transfer of income to those who are, currently and in the future, privileged in our society. Secondly, unreasonable income limits, insufficient amounts of student financial aid and student loan and the uncertainty following graduation create a Gordian Knot where, after entering the university, the student is not in any hurry to graduate.

Then how can we secure the equality of opportunities if tuition fees are in use?

The answer is simple: by renewing the student loan system. The model from Great Britain provides a solution where taking out student loan does not initiate the doomsday countdown for the individual, but it enables fulltime studies at a university, regardless of the student’s social background. In Great Britain, the income level following graduation affects the pace at which the student loan must be paid back.

In other words, if the newly graduated does not earn enough salary, they do not have to pay back their loan. The student loan payments only start when the income level provides the possibility, and this also works progressively. In practice, this means that, for example, a student in the arts, who has weaker salary prospects compared to a student of finance, can take out student loan and seek and do work in their own field after graduation without any rush.

Another interesting example for how to organise tuition fees is the Sciences Po University in Paris, where tuition fees are determined according to the income level of the student’s parents. In other words, a student from banlieu most likely pays zero euros per semester, and a student from the 16th arrondissement pays quite a bit more. It is also noteworthy that many French universities do not use tuition fees. On the other hand, Sciences Po is a classic elite university, whose alumni include the majority of the presidents and influential industrial actors. Could the Sciences Po model work in Finland as well? What if we assigned a similar model for juridical and economic schools and other so-called “elite schools”?

Higher education without tuition fees is often supported for the reason that education is expected to increase the total well-being of the society. However, this is not necessarily always the case, but it may only be the individual alone who profits from the education. Therefore, if there is no direct link between education and the common good, it is also difficult to come up with a basis for the public funding of higher education.

Free is always free, but cheap does not necessarily mean it is good. Especially when considering tuition fees in terms of attracting international students, we must remember that also pricing can have an appeal. If Finnish higher education is as high-quality as it is said to be, could we not give it a price tag that expresses this?