Taking Sides: Where’s The Evidence That FREE University Education Is Poor Quality?


Political debate in South Africa is often referred to as “robust”. We even have a touch of pride about it. Parliamentary screaming matches, heated disagreements over meat and beer, and petty pomposity in the opinion pages are as essential to the national scene as sunny skies and thunderstorms.

The point, in my opinion, is to at least try to keep the standard of the conversation high. That means arguing logically, marshaling evidence, and trying to give each other a fair chance to be heard (which also sometimes means keeping quiet). We bring our identities and emotions to these debates (it is useless to deny it) while we carve out room for reason.

Recently, some of my dearest friends, including people naturally sympathetic to the student movement, have started expressing concerns about the future of higher education in South Africa. One of their key assertions, which has got plenty of assenting mumbles on social media, is that free education in South Africa will lead inexorably to poor quality education.

Let us first get a few things clear. Nobody is suggesting that higher education does not need to be funded. While #FeesMustFall activists may not be advancing a specific funding model, there are some innovative options in play. Opponents of the student movement like to ascribe to it magical thinking, a typically evidence-insensitive defence.

For the purposes of presenting the debate fairly, I am going to adopt a strong definition of “free”: that no student should pay tuition for higher education, either upfront or in the form of repaying a government loan. In other words, the funding must come from taxation.

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Twelve universities in the QS Top 100 Universities ranking for 2015/16 are in countries where nationals do not pay tuition fees, such as Sweden and Germany, and countries such as France and Belgium, where students pay a nominal 2-3% of the total cost of education as an annual, waivable (means-tested) fee.

Is 12/100 a lot, or not? That depends on whether the proportion for all universities worldwide is lower, or higher. For example, if 20% of universities worldwide are free but only 12% of the Top 100 are, we might say that there is some evidence the free tuition impacts negatively on quality. If only 5% of universities worldwide were free, we might be tempted to say that it impacts positively.

However, without knowing the total amount worldwide, linking freeness to quality is impossible. What is possible is making the following claim: universities CAN BE FREE and HIGH QUALITY at the same time. There is simply no necessary link between being free and being low quality. If you consider that no South African university ranks in the Top 100, you could even word it differently: at least 12 free universities in the world outrank all of our fee-paying ones (our highest is UCT at #171). This logic works both ways. I have not proven that being free has no impact on quality, only that there is no evidence that this is the case.

Free tuition is very much a live debate in the United Kingdom, a country where even the Left has voices for and against. The Oxfords and Cambridges of the world (hardly low-quality institutions) started charging tuition fees under Tony Blair as recently as the late 1990s. Current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has promised to scrap fees again should Labour win the next election. Please note that such a reversion to the UK’s previous policy would mean that 30/100 universities in the Top 100 would be free.

It should already be clear that the issue for advocates of “free” higher education now becomes: if the political will is there, who gets taxed, and how much? How much should the corporations, who profit from our skilled workforce, pay? How much should individuals, who gain personally from their education, pay? And how much should the people in general, who live in a society made healthier and more prosperous through higher education, pay? Progressive taxation is to a large extent about redistributive justice, and so the answer is likely to be that profitable companies, and the best-off individuals in society, will end up paying the most, whether or not they went to university.

That is a debate for another day. And it is one which I think #FeesMustFall could usefully engage in. Many activists have pointed out that vice-chancellors and media commentators have spoken down to students, talking at them instead of listening to them. Students are often presented as having ill-formed and even magical views about the world. What I have shown is that some of the views are thrown back at them are just as wacky.

My fear is that many privileged people are so used to being able to buy their advantage over others that they have convinced themselves that this is the natural order of things. When “advantage” becomes freely available to everybody, it ceases to become an advantage. This is the subtle ideology encoded in the aphorism “you get what you pay for”.

This ideology is transparent to many people in the student movement, which is not all toppled pot-plants and burning tyres. Offering unargued assertions ungrounded in any evidence only insults the intelligence of the students. If we are to emerge from the current crisis with a better, more equitable higher education system, we need to listen and engage with fairness and an open mind.

Source: The South African

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