Free tertiary education

Image Credit: Ellen Nugent

'At least two sides'

Looking at both sides of an issue tends to give you a centrist perspective. But there is one issue on which I am a radical: education. There are very few investments in life that give a higher return than education. One would hope that as I am writing this for a college newspaper that I am preaching to the choir, so to speak.

It is a great injustice that some people feel that they cannot access tertiary education. This could be either because their family believes they can’t afford it, or they never believed they could go to college and, in turn, they never did what was necessary to open that door. Therefore, it is important to set the expectation that everyone can avail of tertiary education, that it will be freely available, and that everyone will be supported through it. 

I do not think that tertiary education should be merely free, it should come with a non-means tested grant. I am against means testing in general - it is expensive, the income thresholds are arbitrary, and it creates some perverse incentives such as having to reduce earnings or earn in the black economy to come in under those thresholds. At the end of the day giving wealthy folks free stuff is totally fine. They paid for it (more on that in a moment). The grant is important because not only are there people who can’t afford the accommodation necessary to pursue a degree in a distant town but also it might go some way to levelling some of the inequities of college life such as access to laptops or books. There are few problems that cannot be helped by loosening the financial constraints that many students face. 

I think it is worth outlining why the taxpayer should fund tertiary education. Graduates of tertiary education typically earn more, leading to higher tax revenues. Having a lot of graduates attracts foreign direct investment which creates more high-quality jobs. Graduates potentially make better political choices, it is no coincidence that a major cleavage in US politics is between people with and without a college education. While there is evidence that women with more education choose to have fewer children, this effect reverses for very high levels of education. And whether you see either of those as a positive or a negative, women having more choices seems like a clear benefit. 

Free tertiary education would not be a panacea, it is not even the best intervention, early childhood interventions seem to have the most effect for their cost, but it could be an important element of a general suite of interventions aimed at making Ireland an equal opportunity nation. 

Okay, so how do I plan to pay for all of this? Taxation. I see no moral issue with the idea that a nation invests in its citizens and then takes a cut of the benefits that accrue to those citizens so that they can continue the virtuous circle and invest in the next generation. This is a part of the reason that I would like the system to be so broad in scope. Rich or poor, studying medicine, horticulture, or economics, everyone would owe the same metaphorical debt (also no actual debt). 

Speaking of non-metaphorical debt, other nations use cheap student loans to help students fund their way through college, but this can and has led to huge problems. One of these is that prices of tertiary education have risen to try and capture as much of the benefits of education as possible, to the point that some students realise no benefits net of debt, and are unable to free themselves from that burden. If the government knows that they are the single payer, then they will be incentivised to make sure that costs are kept within a reasonable range. Another issue is that some students or families do not appreciate the potential benefits of education, and so when faced with a financial calculation involving debt, they are dissuaded by the risk. A key element of my proposal is to try and circumvent negative thinking about education that can be present in certain communities to give prospective students the best chance at being able to avail of it. 

None of this is to suggest that we should lower standards for access to or standards within our education system. Tertiary education should remain challenging because challenge can bring out the best in people. However, the challenges that students should be endeavouring to overcome should be academic in nature, not the challenge of feeding themselves whilst working to make society a better place.