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What if college and university were free?

Written by Think Forward Staff
Friday, 12 December 2014

Recent student actions in Canada and the U.K. have highlighted the ever-worsening problem of rising tuition fees and student debt throughout the developed world, with higher education becoming increasingly unaffordable for working class students in the West.

In Toronto, students at Ryerson University set up a tent city on campus last month to protest skyrocketing tuition fees and a lack of action from university officials in addressing the problem. The students requested to present an alternative budget to the school's Board of Governors that would freeze tuition fees, following ten consecutive years of fee hikes at Ryerson. After camping in the cold for several days and occupying a Board of Governors meeting, the students won approval to present their budget for consideration by the Board this spring.

In the United Kingdom, a coalition of student-led groups took to the streets of London in November to march for accessible and publicly-funded higher education in the wake of austerity cuts to post-secondary education by David Cameron's Conservative government. Noting that "education is a right, not a privilege," the protesters said soaring debt among today's students and graduates shows that "the marketization of education is failing."

But instead of demanding reduced tuition fees, the U.K. students called on the government to abolish all tuition fees and make "free, accessible, and public education" a reality. Which raises the question – is it possible to have free post-secondary education in a market economy?

It turns out that free education is not just a pipe dream, as Germany, Finland, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Hungary, Luxembourg, and Slovenia all offer tuition-free higher education to their citizens, and in some cases international students. Speaking to The Washington Post, German senator Dorothee Stapelfeldt said that tuition fees "discourage young people who do not have a traditional academic family background from taking up study. It is a core task of politics to ensure that young women and men can study with a high quality standard free of charge."

The U.S. state of Tennessee, meanwhile, has launched a program that offers two years of tuition-free community or technical college to high school gradutes. Dubbed "Tennesee Promise," the new initiative has already exceeded the state's enrolment projections in its first few months.

These jurisdictions demonstrate that "free" post-secondary education – fully funded through the tax system – is in fact a realistic and worthwhile policy. Indeed, Oregon is now exploring a proposal that would not only cover the tuition fees of state residents who want to attend community college, but would also pay for their room and board. The state estimates the program would cost $250 million annually, but is seriously considering the initiative because it would help tens of thousands of youth access college and enable Oregonians to better compete in the global economy.

With student debt spiralling out of control in Canada, and post-secondary education slipping out of reach for low income students, it could be that the simplest and most effective way to address both problems would be to make college and university absolutely free.



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