From the editor's desk
From the editor's desk > Time to scrap tuition fees

21 February 2018

Time to scrap tuition fees

University education

Britain’s young adults are unfairly treated compared with their parents and grandparents. “Generation Rent” is often also “Generation Debt” – those who are never likely to be able to afford to own their own homes as their parents did, and who are likely to be still paying off their university tuition fee loans in their forties and fifties. Until relatively recently, university education in the United Kingdom was free. Now the standard cost is around £9,000 a year, which students are expected to borrow and repay, with interest, over 25 years or more (unless their income stays below a certain level). 

This glaring inter-generational injustice is part of the moral case for abolishing university tuition fees altogether, which the prime minister resolutely refused to consider when she announced a review of university funding this week. It is already a popular Labour Party policy. It has been implemented by the SNP government in Edinburgh; the Germans abolished tuition fees four years ago.

It is generally admitted that the British system is seriously flawed, hence Theresa May’s review. Allowing universities to charge fees was supposed to encourage price competition among them, but nothing of the sort happened. She stands by the argument, however, that as graduates benefit financially from having a degree, they should bear most of the cost. Otherwise the burden falls on taxpayers in general. Only about half of eligible young people go to university in Britain, though it is also true that a significant proportion of graduates earn no more than their non-graduate contemporaries.

There are more fundamental objections to the government’s aim of turning higher education into a commodity that can be marketed, a process which Pope Benedict’s XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate called “commodification” and “marketisation”. They derive from the free-market economists’ anthropological assumption that individual human beings are motivated solely by self-interest. Their model is homo economicus – Economic Man. Against this atomisation of what it means to be human, Catholic Social Teaching sees humans primarily as social beings. Hence the service of the common good and the upholding of human dignity is the goal and purpose of all human activity.

The concept of the common good needs to be emphasised in the debate about tuition fees, for it counteracts the appeal of Mrs May’s claim that

“those who benefit directly from higher education should contribute directly towards the cost of it”. A more highly educated society directly benefits all its members, which is why state schools in Britain are free.

Abolishing tuition fees would raise a host of other questions, like whether 50 per cent of young people need a university education in order to fulfil their potential, and how should universities be funded. But they cannot be answered unless the basic principle is accepted. The perfection of the intellect should not be treated as a commodity to be bought and sold, but according to Newman’s insight in his The Idea of a University, as an activity serving the good of the whole human community.




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