Free tuition? A good or bad idea?

Courtesy of Free Education Montreal

In the last year the cost of post-secondary tuition in Quebec, Canada has become one of the most dominant issues in the province’s political landscape. For the non-Canadians, let me give you a brief introduction. Quebec has the lowest tuition in all of Canada. The Quebec government wants to raise that tuition over 5 years (even then it will still remain the lowest in Canada). The students want a tuition freeze or (gasp) free tuition. Students have rioted, Charest (the premier) has been revolted, the situation remains volatile.

Let me add some data points as to why this is now spreading outside of Quebec. Students face ever increasing student debt. In some cases student debt is crippling. In the USA, total student debt far outstrips credit card debt apparently (woah). This will become an issue for the US election and future elections where the young are the most likely to be unemployed (see Spain).

An Argument Revisited

Almost twenty years ago, I worked for the student newspaper in Newfoundland and wrote an editorial suggesting that we needed to move to a system of free tuition. I’ve had a couple decades to think about how economies work as well as how people work. Twenty years ago, as a student, I espoused a system where students had free tuition like parts of Europe and that we should send less people to academic institutions and more towards trades schools instead.

Let me start my revisit of my 19-year-old self by saying that economics is not an exact science and behavioural economics is even more inexact at best. My thinking now follows the adage “be careful what you wish for”. Please note, much of what I write is speculation and my opinion, but examples can be found I’m sure around the world.

Problem 1: Nothing in life is free

The problem with “free tuition” is that it isn’t actually free. Someone somewhere needs to pay for running a person through the education system. These days with high technology, someone needs to fill labs with equipment, computers and what not. In a free tuition model, money must come from either government (taxes) or private enterprise. You could argue that we can afford it, and I agree, if government decided to spend less money on things like war-mongering, we’d definitely have the money, but realistically we all know that the status quo is unlikely to change. Therefore, let me argue that if the government paid fully for tuition it will end up meaning smaller universities. If you have smaller institutions then they will become places for the best of the best.

On the face, maybe that’s not that bad, but then what demographic is really the “best of the best”. Typically, the best students come from the upper and educated classes. Those with money can provide the environment to allow children to be fully educated. In other words, one scenario with free tuition is not easier access for all, but easier access to the privileged. Not quite the expected result.

Funding through private enterprise means you have private company shareholders in academia. Like it or not, that means that universities will pander even more to those who give money. This means private enterprise will fund those programs which can directly add to their bottom line. This is not evil, it is just short-term human thinking, and before we get on a soap box, we are all guilty of this!

Problem 2: Money is a motivator

This problem is much much harder to prove and something that I have been thinking about a great deal recently. Could making universities free end up de-motivating students instead of motivating them? Let me explain.

Think back to what you thought about courses that were free? Do you always go to them or do you think “Oh well, you know, I’m feeling kind of tired today, meh…”. In this sense, free tuition hinges on the attitude that people really want to study and learn and can motivate themselves. On the other hand, if you had to pay from your own money, would you feel more motivation to study? If you had to work 15 hours a week to go to university, wouldn’t you value that education more?

But there’s more to this: most students don’t work to pay all of their tuition, they get loans, others are fully paid by their parents. In my opinion, a key motivator to getting students to care about their studies is to know that they need to do well in order to make use of their own money and time. In my honest opinion, making universities free is actually a de-motivator in my mind.

However, making university super expensive and causing more student debt is also a de-motivator. Once you get into a a certain level of debt, the difference between a small amount of debt and a big amount of debt is meaningless in most people’s minds. After that, debt is not a motivator, it’s just part of the fabric (until you graduate). Knowing that getting into a lot of debt is the only way to get a post-secondary education is one way to make sure people don’t go to university.


Well, there really isn’t a conclusion really. I do not believe our current situation is a good one if the goal of higher education is to produce a workforce which can innovate our societies. I do not believe that free tuition will get us to that solution either without truly understanding North American culture and where we have come to. I do not believe that free tuition will mean wider access to education, a greater, more educated society or eliminate poverty. I would even argue, same as I did 20 years ago, that those graduating today’s “universities” are not prepared to take on the innovation that is required in the business and science worlds of today. I would argue that a majority of students are not as “educated”, “informed” or “engaged” as we would like them to be. If that were the case, we’d have much higher voter turnout.

In my opinion, students arguing for tuition freezes should also be looking at the entire system. Are the universities funded well enough for you to learn what you need to? Are the universities currently represented from all walks of life? Does your tenure at university lead to a better life, better chances in the work place? Does getting yourself into a pile of debt before you even get a job a good thing? How would you handle the problems that free tuition would bring? How do you handle your student debt?


3 thoughts on “Free tuition? A good or bad idea?

  1. Hi Dups great piece. I Fear, I am in the minority when I believe tuition (in the case of MUN) needs to be increased not lowered – for the exact reasons you give. Making the case that cost is associated with a value added. Why not. Our current culture lets these students have the latest tech “bling”, wear designer clothing and branded luggage wear. Those items cost premium prices and consumers are willing to pay for that, but because it is perceived that “education should be free” and not the case of ‘cost as added value” that students are caught in the dichotomy. They want both – low cost education so that they are not burdened with debt and to have the lifestyle branding. (I will admit this is not the case for all – but it appears that way on a superficial level).
    My solution – national norms for tuition, like the UK with the institution deciding how to increase and decrease based on their “product”. National Student grants to lower the threshold of the “cost as added value” to enter premium schools and to allow the financially disadvantaged an opportunity for education for less. Financial performance bonuses for good educational performance and to raise the entrance requirements to a national level so that the perception of value of an education is balanced with the students who want a valued education system. Finally, the return to a streaming program in middle and high schools – giving the students choice before graduation to either peruse higher education or turn to trades (do this at 15 or 16) supported by a robust apprenticeship program to fill in the trades gap ad supported by the trade unions to be forced to take training apprentices based on their skilled tradespeople.
    While this is an armchair solution, I think we have to look backward to how we dealt with education rather than solely looking at “modern” or ‘innovative solutions” – because I think if we soon don’t turn back the clock – it might just stop for good.

  2. Well although it’s been a long time but still your article made me revisit that past incident. The tiff between students and government aside, Since Quebec receives transfer amount from government, it should clearly state how that amount is being utilized but I completely second your point that monetary value addition in every sphere is required for a high end productivity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s