Last year I argued that there is little difference between having and not having university tuition fees. The arguments placed against it were largely insubstantial and I have yet to have a decisive point against tuition fees.
However, in this article I will offer some arguments that could be used to defeat the idea.
Putting poorer students off
There has been a decline in university applications since the rise in tuition fees. According the BBC, the number of applicants dropped nearly 10%.
This is in itself not a problem. When people realise the full cost of university, perhaps people decide that it is not worth it. Which could legitimately be the case. Wages are market-driven thus the skills we need could continue to attract applicants while those we don’t could see a drop-off, and this would be the system working.
It would however be a problem if it turned out that there was a substantial drop in applicants from poorer backgrounds while wealthier backgrounds did not see such a drop as this would suggest we are creating a less egalitarian society.
However, this is not the case, and thus this argument falls down. According to the UCAS figure discussed in the previously mentioned BBC article, applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds dropped only 0.2%, while those from privileged backgrounds dropped 2.5%.
Supply and demand
In theory you might expect tuition fees to better match the demand for labour. This is because people might be more inclined to choose professions such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc, that give them a chance to pay off their loan. Whereas my guess (and it is a guess, I have no figures to back this up) is that people who study English or contemporary art, will be less likely to pay the loans off.
This does not necessarily follow though. If you are going to be a penniless artist you do not need to worry about paying your loan off because it is income dependent.
Also this assumes that people pick their courses both rationally and with financial ends in mind, neither of which may be true.
An alternative system that better match skills shortages to labour is a system such as Finland operate. In Finland, it’s free to go to university. You get like five years free, including a maintenance grant, which is enough time to do a bachelors and a masters. It’s open to all EU citizens for free too!
The catch is that there is a cap. They only take so many people, so if you want to go study sports science for example, there may be say 50 places per year and if you don’t make the cut, you don’t be doing that subject (or any subject).
This system means that people could potentially miss out on higher education. Though more likely they will just switch onto an under-subscribed course. However it does do a good job of making sure that the best people are fulfilling the countries labour needs.
Long term equality
In Capital in the Twenty-First Century Thomas Piketty suggests their is evidence that a more highly educated population leads to higher levels of equality in the long term, as shown by the Nordics.
Therefore we may decide that as tuition fees put people off attending university (this point is debatable, though applications have gone down in the short term), we may want to pay for as many people to go to university so that in the long term we create a better, more equal society.