Abolishing university fees is not the answer

Our problems with education are much deeper and more complicated than the debate about whether university fees should be free or not. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that making our current university system free would be catastrophic financial mistake that would increased debt without providing the necessary economic benefit to the country.

Let’s consider the two arguments for attending and progressing through higher education. Many people argue that learning is simply an enriching process that is rewarding for the individual and broadly beneficial to society as a whole. I’ve heard this expressed on numerous occasions. The problem with this argument is that places value and priority on only one form of learning or enrichment, generally based on the proponent’s own personal experience.

One could reasonably see an argument that taking a year out and travelling across Asia, learning about different cultures, seeing different cultural sites and immersing yourself in the culture could be equally, if not more, enriching to the individual. Or spending time in your bedroom pulling apart computers, searching the internet and learning about how to code, But of course, we don’t see many people proposing that the state should fund people’s travels and trips or internet explorations in their bedroom.

The second, more plausible, argument is that the country should have a high skilled economy and this is driven by university attendance. The problem with this argument is that the proponents of fee free university attendance don’t discriminate in their approach to the courses that should be available and the number of places. In other words, the value of the subsidy that is placed on a medical degree is exactly the same as the value that is placed on a degree in forensic psychology. Yet demand for the skills in the labour market is entirely different.

Add to this the complexity of the entry requirements for various subjects and the provision of places not matching with the needs of the economy (we reject bright, dedicated students away from degrees in medicine and then have shortages of doctors and a need to hire in from abroad) and you have a highly imperfect system. Is this a system we want to subsidise at significant cost to the taxpayer? Personally, my answer is no.

It seems to me that a level of government subsidy in the subjects that we are short of and need to build a thriving and dynamic economy, could and should be a good thing. But that should also extend into postgraduate development and in technical and professional development in vocational education – in the way that we’ve seen this applied to teacher training. Simply, applying a one size fits all approach to tertiary education misses the point and is a blunt and inefficient use of taxpayers’ money.

A well though through economic and industrial strategy linked to educational end vocational incentives for the subjects with skills shortages supported by a realistic and progressive graduate tax for other subjects feels like a more sensible and joined up way of approaching the topic. The links between education, skills and the country’s economic prosperity are complex and interwoven, but the job of government is to unpick them for the benefit of all – not simply as a means to buy votes.