By Theo Donnelly
I’m aware that the opinion that higher education shouldn’t be free is not a popular one to have on a university campus. This is hardly surprising, as attempting to persuade people to part with their money is difficult at the best of times, and as such, there is little enthusiasm for taking out a large loan instead of getting the same service for free. Nevertheless, I will attempt to explain why I hold this controversial opinion and possibly even convert a few people… maybe.
Before I begin I’d like to state that I do not think the current system is perfect, far from it. Indeed, the level of fees, interest rates and loan structure could all be improved. That said, I do believe there are some very good reasons as to why there should be a fee of some sort.
Firstly, there is the immense cost that would be incurred if university entry were to be made free. If current numbers of students remained the same, it is estimated that it would cost the government £36 billion per year to provide free higher education. To achieve this there are two options, cutting spending from other areas or borrowing more. Redirecting funds from other sectors is controversial, especially bearing in mind that the public sector is already operating on a skeleton crew. Moreover, the opportunity cost of cutting these services must be carefully considered. As for borrowing more, it would add to the already vast national debt and with the UK’s credit rating being lowered over the last few years, the potential tax hikes, national savings and investment reductions would be felt even harder.
Secondly, it’s obvious that lowering fees to zero would lead to a huge rise in the number of students applying to university, stretching resources even further and adding to the costs burdening the taxpayer. It’s not only the basic costs that will rise due to an increase in student numbers, there are significant knock-on effects that must also be taken into account. If university was free, there would suddenly be very little cost in dropping out other than the waste of your own time, thereby weakening the incentive to finish your degree. This would create a scenario in which students could drop out without much consequences from their fully government funded course without a degree, therefore not contributing to any of the advantages of having a highly educated workforce. This is compounded by the fact that university drop out rates have been on the rise since 2011, reaching 6.4% in 2015-16 (the most recent figures available). These numbers can be expected to rise even further if the exit cost to university is reduced to almost nothing.
Furthermore, with a higher percentage of young people going to university than at any other point in our history (2016 saw the recorded highest), a new issue arises as the number of graduates increases: there are more graduates than grad level jobs. In 2017, the ONS reported that 49% of recent graduates (received their degree within the last 5 years) were working in ‘non-graduate roles’, meaning that nearly half of graduates are not utilising their degree to its full potential and perhaps more concerningly are taking away non-grad jobs from those who have not been to university. This is the result of the fact that a degree is far more common than it was in the past and its value no longer as high, which means that those without a degree are the ones suffering the most.
This leads to the question of what we should do as an alternative to free higher education for all. I believe the fees should be means tested, which would require that those who are of a lower income background be given more generous terms while those on higher incomes would pay the full fees. I also think that if more public money is to be spent on higher education, it would be far more beneficial to subsidise degrees that are in the shortest supply and that give a large benefit to society as a whole, nursing being the prime example of this. To conclude, it is obvious that from an individual’s point of view paying university fees is undesirable, but perhaps it is worth considering things from the viewpoint of the collective, in terms of what benefits the majority.