"You can never be overdressed or over-educated"
-- Oscar Wilde
When we talk about university education being free, the assumption is that it should be available to everyone -- regardless of "the way they dress" (their economic position). Does free university mean it will be available to all? Sadly, the answer may be "no." In principle, the concept of free education is attractive; yet, when considering the practical outcomes, we will see that it would bring no real benefit to society at large, measured either in terms of economic betterment or social utility. In any case, as I will argue, it is an impossible goal to achieve.
Given present economic realities, policy-makers and taxpayers must consider the financial cost and benefit of university education as well as the non-economic benefits.
Who should bear the expense of university: the student or society as a whole? A recent study from British Columbia reports that those who obtain undergraduate degrees will, over the course of their working lives, contribute between $106,000 and $159,000 more income tax to the public treasury than people who do not earn such degrees.
The assumption is that North American university graduates will earn higher incomes than non-university graduates. However, economic theory indicates that as the number of university graduates increases, the relative disparity between their income and those of non-university graduates will decrease. If this is so, then the purely economic benefits to society as a whole, in terms of increased tax revenue, may not, in fact, be realized when more and more people graduate from university.
According to a National Post article, the average annual tuition paid by full-time university students in Canada is $6,186. The average annual cost per student, however is $12,657. So provincial taxpayers have to make up the shortfall.
There are about 30,000 full-time university students in Manitoba and 8,000 part-time students. If tuition were eliminated for all of them, then either other government programs would have to be cut or taxes would have to increase. Despite the additional tax revenue which would be generated by the higher incomes of university graduates, it will simply not be possible to extract an additional $204 million on an annual basis from provincial taxpayers. It is unlikely that taxpayers would be willing to accept either the higher taxes or the cuts to other programs required by a policy of free university tuition.
The analysis, however, cannot stop at economics. It is noteworthy that in fact, the Scandinavian countries do provide free post-secondary education, not only to their own citizens, but to students from across the globe attending their facilities. From this it can be concluded that a western democracy, if it chooses to accept a higher level of taxation, can provide free university education. Presumably, these countries have recognized not only the direct economic benefits referred to in the Ivanova paper but have also seen those additional benefits which are not as easily quantified. Those benefits would include the advantages of having a better or more thoroughly educated society, and, in theory, one better equipped to respond to societal challenges, whether economic, environmental or social.
I would argue that there is increasing evidence in present-day Europe, where liberal democracies have long bestowed a broad social welfare system on their populations, that a better-educated society is not necessarily a more content or understanding society.
Increasingly, there is evidence, not only in Europe but throughout the world, that university education does not inevitably result in "meaningful employment" (better-paid and more personally fulfilling jobs and opportunities for graduates). In many ways, this result would be anticipated by Marxist thinkers. As Karl Marx observed:
"The production of too many useful things (in this case meaning a university education) results in too many useless people."
Education breeds expectations; while one is slow ever to describe people as "useless," it may be said that too many well-educated people inevitably will result in those people feeling "useless" for not fulfilling their economic potential or not finding personal satisfaction.
Some people seek university education purely for their personal interests or for intellectual challenge. To the extent that access is limited, free tuition will create competition which may deny these people the opportunity to pursue the education and personal fulfillment which they seek. Therefore, it can be seen that free tuition prevents the result that in theory it was meant to produce.
The real issue in Canada is not cost, but access. University spaces are finite. Eliminating tuition will not create more spaces in universities. It could, in fact, decrease the number of spaces if there is no stream of ever-increasing tuition revenue to address increasing costs of education. If free university education results in an increase in the demand for spots, then universal acceptance of applicants can only mean vastly increased costs. So, in reality, free university would simply increase the competition amongst high school students for a limited number of university spaces.
Whether or not free tuition is accompanied by increased enrolment, the outcome will be as Marx would have predicted. More (intellectual) capital -- education -- will, by reason of sheer numbers, cause increasing parts of the population to be rendered "useless" in the sense that despite their education, they will not all be able to contribute meaningfully to society.
If the real issue is access, it should be clear that free education will not guarantee or improve the chances of those who are economically disadvantaged to attend university. If the goal is to enable more people to attend university, the answer lies in controlling the underlying costs of education so that more spaces can be available, whether they are free or require some modest payment by students. It appears that eliminating university tuition by itself will not, in fact, help those for whom tuition might be a barrier. The real path to this worthwhile goal is to address issues of access.
Hayley Stacey is a Grade 12 student at Balmoral Hall School. Her supervising teacher was John Kerr.