Should a university education be a right for those with academic ability?


University applications have fallen by 12 percent. Most people feel that this is a bad thing, that young people are being deprived of a great life experience, not to mention important skills, as a result of the planned rise in tuition fees. Most people are wrong.

The fact that students have been put off applying to university by the rise in tuition fees indicates that these students do not believe that a university education will prove to be worth £9,000 a year. It suggests that they do not think the benefits of going to university will justify the costs. And the fact that would-be students are thinking like this explains why the rise in tuition fees was such a good thing.

The problem with having taxpayers pay for university is that it turns it into the default option. After all, who wouldn’t be up for a three-year jolly at someone else’s expense? But for many people, going to university doesn’t make sense – they’d be better off working, or developing a more practical skillset. And this applies as much to the most talented, who may find university an ambition-sapping bore, as it does to the less academically gifted.

We need students to decide for themselves whether university is the right choice or not. And to make that decision rationally, they need to be aware of the full cost. Government shouldn’t be loading the dice – subsidising young people to spend three years doing something they may not get much out of, and which isn’t worth the money spent on it, makes no economic or social sense whatsoever.

There are people who would reject the idea that going to university should be subject to a cost-benefit analysis. They would argue that cost should never enter into the equation at all, that going to university is a ‘right’, and that ‘austerity government’ should not stand in the way of that. This is misguided on several levels.

Firstly, using ‘rights’ terminology is wrong. Unlike classical human rights, which impose nothing on others except the obligation to respect someone’s person and property, a ‘right’ to go to university imposes on someone else the obligation to pay for it. Rights are universal and indisputable, but higher education is clearly an issue upon which reasonable people can disagree. There are no ‘rights’ to government services, only competing claims on the taxpayers’ limited resources.

Secondly, if students are not exposed to the cost of their education, there’s little reason for them to demand high standards, either of themselves or their universities. Nor is there much incentive for universities to strive to deliver more for less, or to come up with innovative new ways of teaching their students. It’s a strange rule of economics that people do not value what they don’t pay for, and that quality suffers as a result.

Thirdly, claiming a ‘right’ to university is a slackers’ charter. It may be impolitic of me to point this out, but there are plenty of bright university students who spend more time partying than studying. And who foots the bill while they do it? Working taxpayers, many of them from less affluent backgrounds, many of whom never had the chance to go to university themselves. This is hardly social solidarity at its finest.

Finally, let’s remember that students don’t have to pay their tuition fees up front. The student loans system means that they can pay for their education later, as they earn, so there’s no reason for poor but gifted teenagers to be put off.

So no, university is not a right. It’s something you should only do if you will benefit from it. And if you are going to benefit, you should be happy to pay.

Published in The Costco Connection.

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