Nonsense of “all education should be free”

In response to Owen Smith’s proposal for a graduate tax to replace student fees, one correspondent got literally hundreds of likes for the apparently brilliant notion that there should be neither student fees nor a graduate tax because “all education should be free”.

Yet such simplistic nonsense is the very problem with our democracy. It is almost impossible for anyone to dispute that line and not make themselves appear abhorrent to the world. And yet it is total nonsense.

Firstly, education as a matter of fact is not free. Teachers and tutors must be paid; buildings must be constructed, maintained, rented and heated; materials must be bought; none of this is “free”. By “free”, we actually mean “paid for by the taxpayer”. So, not free, in other words.

Secondly, if I decide for no reason other than my own amusement to do an online course in gardening, should that be paid for by the taxpayer (or “free”, as some like to call it)? Of course not. What a ridiculous notion.

So let us work back from there. If I decide to do an adult learning course, should it be “free”? Or maybe a degree in my spare time, for no reason other than I qualified and felt like it? Or maybe a degree full time…?

Basic education, and within that I include nursery, should be available for “free” (i.e. on the taxpayer) for all. That gives everyone a fair chance, regardless of background (or, at least, it should), and is a broad and wise social investment for us all (even those of us without children of our own).

But optional further education? That is an investment in yourself for which you are likely to be rewarded, and not just financially. I recommend it. But it’s for you, so don’t expect me to pay for it!

And let’s think before we trot out such populist nonsense.

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7 thoughts on “Nonsense of “all education should be free”

  1. 416 says:

    I can’t disagree with what you’re saying. But there’s a loony lefty in me that says higher education is good for society, and therefore a sound investment. I studied with the Open University and it turned my thinking upside down and made me a better person than I was before. I can’t help but think if more people had that opportunity, we’d live in a more tolerant society. It certainly cooled my heels a little! Food for thought anyway.

  2. William Allen says:

    There is a case for certain higher education courses to be state funded. By this I mean ones that train people to carry out vital roles in society such as medicine, or are vital for the future health of the economy, national defence etc. In the second case I mean areas such as engineering and certain sciences.

  3. andyboal says:

    I would belong to the school of thought that thinks student loans are a waste of taxpayers’ money and might as well be replaced by means-tested grants and fees paid out of general taxation as waiting for the money that actually gets repaid… it was part of the deal from 1962 to 1989 that each generation paid for the next one to have higher education, and it was no coincidence that when tuition fees were changed from a fixed £1,000 in advance to a maximum of £3,000 in arrears and later to £9,000 that the universities jumped to the maximum allowable. However, it was about Governments wanting to move money out of taxation. Written-off student debt sounds as though it wasn’t that successful.

    My parents wouldn’t let me take out a student loan, but the paucity of the grant meant that debt was inevitable despite their hopes. The £1,000 upfront fee would have killed off the idea of me going to university at all if I had been younger, let alone the mounting student debt.

  4. korhomme says:

    I’m a ‘boomer’. In my day, Uni fees were paid for, most people got grants to study. I’m very grateful for this. IMO this is the best model.

    I’d qualify that a bit. Uni after A levels is a furtherance of education and should be ‘free’, that is not a burden on the student. Grants should be available for study.

    Afterwards, it’s more complex. Higher degrees and PhDs? Perhaps a student contribution, though many Unis make students work for their degree.

    Open Uni degrees later in life? Well, I’ve done these when the fees were very moderate; I’d be happy for this to continue.

    Apprenticeships? You don’t mention this. Yet such students get paid to work and study. Why should this be different from a Uni degree? And after Uni, many students have to be trained in their workplace where they are being paid.

    • William Allen says:

      You have always had to pay for PG degrees and PhDs are usually funded by non-government sources.

      • korhomme says:

        Yes, I’m sure this is correct.

        Another point though: in my day, long ago, the Senior Certificate – today’s GCSE seems to have been a tough exam, perhaps as severe as A levels today. An undergraduate degree then was a very high award; today, I have the feeling it’s more like Advanced Levels used to be. So today, a post-graduate Masters or whatever is now the equivalent of a BA/BSc in the past. Or is this just rose-tinted specs? And what does a BA get get you today? A job as a barista, perhaps, not much else.

  5. Free third level education is not a right in the same way that children’s education is.
    People who leave school have a choice to either go into the workforce or get a higher qualification.
    Just as a matter of interest, 87% of Northern Ireland graduates leave Northern Ireland for their future career and a many of the rest obtain jobs that they are overqualified for. Higher Education in Northern Ireland cannot possibly give a return on an investment for the Northern Ireland economy.
    On a personal note, I am taking a degree at the OU. I have just finished level 1. The total fees for level 1 are £5,400. However, I am not whinging about it. It is my choice to do that studying and it is right that the fee should not be paid by the tax payer.

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