From the Left: Should Tertiary Education be Free?

Tertiary education should be free as a right. Not having free tertiary education is damaging to both society and the individual. Free tertiary education is both desirable and affordable. It would result in a much better society.

Getting a university, polytechnic or apprenticeship qualification means that society, as a whole, is more educated. We all benefit. Everyone benefits in having plumbers that understand the entire pipe system thingy, scientists that understand the problem and can effectively deal with it (whether it is bio-security, nuclear reactions, or finding a cure for AIDS), accountants which can book-keep properly or teachers who can actually teach your children. This is beneficial for everyone. No one benefits from poorly done jobs, it is annoying and costly. Having a highly trained workforce means that no one needs to worry about quality, we become more efficient as a whole.

By giving free tertiary education, the government provides a level-playing field for everyone. Many would argue that the loan scheme achieves this. It does not. People from poorer backgrounds are less likely to burden themselves with debt as, relative to what they have lived their lives of, it is higher. They are frightened away from taking on too much debt (comparative to their parent’s income). They thus do not get a tertiary education. The student loan scheme works to keep poorer people out of university not into it.

Reducing the cost of tertiary education would also reduce unemployment. Many of those who are long-term unemployed are so because the skills they previously used working in state-subsidised industries are no longer desirable or useful in this ‘information age’. Retraining former railway staff to be able to work in a 21st century workplace would be beneficial to all. By providing free education, many more people will up-skill and unemployment will be able to fall even further. There is currently a skills shortage in a number of sectors, but there are also numerous people unemployed who do not have the skills for these positions. Giving these people free tertiary education is a good thing for everyone as GDP will grow, there will be less unemployment benefits, and the newly employed person will of course have more money and move out of poverty.

By making tertiary education cost money, thousands of New Zealanders have been driven overseas. As thousands leave, the 70% investment that the government currently provides (in subsidising fees), is wasted. For slightly more money from the government, they would get the full return on their investment as less people would leave overseas. It would also relieve the debt burden from New Zealanders. These people are delaying house ownership, they are delaying having children, they are delaying saving for their retirement to get out of their student loan debt. This is obviously not helping the general population.

The liberal belief in the market should not be the centre of policy making. The decision to let ‘market forces’ control fees has not worked. The theory was that the market would force fees down, it has not; the market has failed. The creation of a ‘tertiary education market’ has resulted in students being ‘consumers’ and institutions ‘providers’. There is no quality control, indeed it is the lowest price, and thus most probably the worst, that wins out. As Garth Morgan points out (http://nbr.infometrics.co.nz/column.php?id=214), tertiary education in New Zealand has been ‘dumbing down’ since the market reforms of the 1990s. Anyone can get a ‘degree’ for a price, there is no attempt to ensure that there is quality within the market. There is no academic rigour within the ‘market’, tertiary institutions have become more focused on money instead of research and the quality of their degree. Only when the two overlap will they try to improve their quality, but often it does not.

Free tertiary education is affordable. The government could afford to fund it. While this may result in higher taxes, it is worth it. Those paying the highest taxes will be those with the highest education (usually). Thus we will return to paying for tertiary education throughout one’s lifecycle rather than through the loan scheme. They will not be burdened with debt, but instead will pay for it through normal taxes.

The government already funds pre-school, primary and secondary education for free. There is no logical reason as to why it should stop there. All three provide for people to be educated and to be able to get a job. Tertiary education is no different. It provides an education, it provides for people to be able to get a job, it just does it at a higher level. If tertiary education, the highest level of education, charges fees then why not the others? Simply because you cannot deny children the right of education, and so to can you not deny it to adults.

If everyone has a tertiary education then as a whole we will move forward. The better trained our workforce is, the better output we have. The more educated we become, the more innovative we become. The more knowledgeable we are, the better we live, argue and communicate. New Zealand as a whole would be better off given a free tertiary education system.

(Greg Stephens, "Should Tertiary Education be Free?: From the Left" in Salient, issue 1, 21 Feb 2005, p.20)


I'd have thought that in our new millenium free education at all levels would be taken for granted.

I see it as a basic human right, in the same league as universal right to food, water, housing and health care.

I don't even comprehend how rich western nations who can afford to build military arsenals that are worth trillions of euros can even begin to argue a case against education for EVERY one.

I thought the concept of classes was slowly becoming a thing of the past. But I guess I'm too naive and trusting in humankind's desire to be a better for everyone.


If our EU constitution ever comes through, I sure hope education for ALL and at all levels will be enshrined in it - i.e. non-negociable. 

Posted by WhyNot
2/21/2005 05:25:00 am  
I certainly won't argue with this. Education should be free and accessible to all. The problem is, it cost to educate someone and too many don't feel it's their responsibliy. Don't look for this to happen in the states. In fact, don't look for anything to happen in the states that will benefit the 'have nots.'  

Posted by Dianne
2/21/2005 10:21:00 am  
Free education in America is by and large very poor. "Tertiary" education would be just as ineffective here. Pretty much anyone who wants to get an education from a state university can obtain loans to do so. Of course, the have-nots often cannot afford to take out a loan and work and go to school at the same time.
Some have looked down on vocational training because it doesn't produce critical thinkers, only those who can enter the workforce and support the system rather than critiquing it.

Just some thoughts... 

Posted by Longshot
2/21/2005 06:02:00 pm  
Thanks for adding your thoughts, Longshot. It's a worthy subject and Greg makes some very good points. New Zealand and the US would be better served by free tertiary education. 

Posted by Dianne
2/21/2005 11:13:00 pm  
Companies would continue to find criteria with which to screen employees , most likely based on how much money they'd spent to get their education. It would be societally edifying to have free tertiary education, but practically speaking, the long-term employment opportunities afforded to graduates of cost-free schools would not be much higher than they are to those without tertiary education. 

Posted by brogonzo
2/25/2005 08:11:00 pm  
I'm not quite sure what your point is here, Bro. But if my undertanding is right and you're perhaps suggesting free tertiary education is too great a financial burden on society, we've had free tertiary education here for centuries and it is clearly not a major burden on our economy - other things may be, but not that.

While I confess not to have the facts, my impression is that in most of the EU countries, tertiary education is free - and once again has never been pointed as the reason for economic harship.

From vague & fuzzy memory, the Sorbonne in Paris has existed free for all for nearly a thousand years. The most pretigious "Grande École", i.e. "Polytechnique" has also been free of charge since its creation in 1794.

Now, regarding what I detect as the other issue you are suggesting, i.e. suitability of employement versus tertiary education qualifications, in Europe at least, it clearly goes without saying. For any but the dumbest job, one is expected to have uni level education.

While this sucks, it's only a consequence of capitalism, and even our superimposed socialism framework is helpless to rectify this madness: employers, even if you are only looking for a secretary job, will give you preference if you have a PHD in nuclear physics. Don't ask me why, it's the way the free market capitalist system works - law of supply and demand.

But more importantly, the workforce relies less and less on bricklayers, and more and more on highly skilled labor, i.e. skills one does not acquire at primary or secondary school.

For this reason alone, I think it makes great sense for *high tech* western nations to seriously consider making tertiary education as great a priority as primary schooling was a century ago, when knowing how to read and write was good enough to get a job. 

Posted by WhyNot
2/25/2005 10:24:00 pm  
Sorry to be vague here. What I meant was that if tertiary education becomes free, then companies will readjust to find some new selection criteria. Your employment opportunities, sadly, are usually directly proportional to the amount of money you've spent on secondary and tertiary education (hence my room in a US Army barracks).

I don't like it, but the upper-level jobs are going to remain open only to those born in the upper levels of society -- who can fork out increasingly exorbitant fees for their education.

I certainly think that society could afford it... I'm just not sure how much it would improve the chances of employment for those who haven't had the "right opportunities." 

Posted by brogonzo
2/25/2005 10:31:00 pm  
I'm trying to digest all this, Bro... (I'm getting to really enjoy talking to you, you know that?)

Ok, let's take it one step at a time if you don't mind:

I'm till lost as why you state "Your employment opportunities, sadly, are usually directly proportional to the amount of money you've spent on secondary and tertiary education".

If education (point blank, i.e. at all levels) is affordable to everyone, how does it make employment opportunities proportional to money spent on education? 

Posted by WhyNot
2/25/2005 11:26:00 pm  
Because of companies changing their hiring requirements to exclude those who have received free or public education. That's all. There still will be corporate elitism, that's my point.

I'm enjoying this too, Pierre. Plus, this army stint is pissing me off continuously, even so I've considered becoming a "flag-burning hippie." 

Posted by brogonzo
2/26/2005 03:12:00 am  
"to exclude those who have received free or public education. ",

Yes but if all education is public, then they can't do it, right? Actually, come to think of it, 99% of tertiary education here is made of either the Universities or the Grandes Écoles, and they are all public & free.

"There still will be corporate elitism, that's my point",

You're only too right here. It nearly took a revolution here to convince Chirac and Raffarin they'd better do something urgent and fire Gaymard from his cushy Fianance minister portfolio. Seems one doesn't need tertiary education to become finance minister in France. Hey, we wouldn't want our finance minister to have a degree in economics, now, would we! One only needs to have buddies, and if you're a liar and a crook then you've got all the qualifications required.

"Pierre" ?

I think that's what Noguru used to call me, LOL 

Posted by WhyNot
2/26/2005 08:45:00 am  
Whoops, sorry. I know it's Phillipe. My bad :) 

Posted by brogonzo
2/26/2005 11:46:00 am  
I must disagree with Brogonzo. In my experience companies could care less where you went to school, or how you went there. They are looking for a specific skillset. If you can do the job, and they think you will be a good fit, thats it.

Of course I work in the IT industry where qualifications are in the eye of the beholder still. Experience and ability out measure all other things, excepting connections.

Cronyism, nepotism or any other ism in relation to securing a professional position will be present in this process as far into the future as I can see. The key is to recognize the opportunities and act on them as they come. Let me put it this way, I have never been offered a position based on my resume. Every position I have been offered has been a result of interview(s). However, I usually receive interviews based on my CV.

No matter what you do or where you went to school a Bachelor's/Master's/PHD in any field is going to make you more marketable than if you didn't have one.

Posted by deviant1
2/26/2005 02:32:00 pm  
"Of course I work in the IT industry where qualifications ..." ,

You're quite right here D1, and that is also what I experienced in that field in Oz. Partly (or even mostly) because IT is such a fast moving field that even the latest uni students are out of touch by the time they look for a job.


... This is true when talking about hiring *technical* ppl. Say a Co is looking for a C++ programmer, and you clearly show you know your stuff during an interview, then you stand a good chance. But....

...try moving from being a C++ programmer to being in a managerial position of the Co. You know, the positions where you get 10 times the wages of a C++ programmer, have a Co car, free cell phone, free and endless supply of freedom fries at any restaurant in town, etc...

Then, it's an entirely different story. I must have worked in 15 different oz IT companies, and whereas the *technical* team was mostly composed of ppl who were competent, the composition of the vast majority of the upper managerial staff had nothing to do with competency nor skills but all to do with "buddies".

Maybe things are different in Canada? I sure hope so, because they sucked in Oz, and they suck even more here in France, especially down here on the Riviera which is one gigantic old-boys network of filthy rich buddies greasing each others palms, and the only hope of getting a job (let alone climb up the ladder) is to *know* somebody.

But, getting back to the topic as a whole (meaning, not just the IT field): when it comes down to politicians, like ministers of finance or whatnot, hahaha, clearly their competence in the field is the last of all worries and requirements. Again, perhaps you Canadians have got it right, but here in France it's down the shitter.

What's everybody's experience on all this? 

Posted by WhyNot
2/26/2005 03:34:00 pm  



<< Home