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University World News: Fees debate obscures purpose of higher education

Original version of this article published by University World News 24 October 2014, issue 340, available at

By Erin Nordal

This past month in Europe has been characterised by debates on tuition fees, or what some attempt to downplay by calling ‘cost-sharing’. Some have tried to disguise it as a ’necessary evil’ in the light of the financial crisis but it has become more and more clear that tuition fees may not have anything to do with the state of the economy.

Around two weeks ago, the government of Norway proposed the introduction of tuition fees for students from countries outside of the European Union or European Economic Area. For a country without fees and experiencing substantial economic growth, this demonstrates that tuition fees cannot be blamed on the financial crisis and are rather a part of a political ideology. It is part of an ideology based on individualism and consumerism.

Others may argue that it’s a ‘necessary evil’ since politicians are forcing them to turn students into customers. It is especially disappointing to see that leaders of universities are giving up on putting pressure on politicians to protect the values of academic freedom and integrity.

We see the direction this is leading us in, and how such a policy is failing in the United States. We are witnessing the disappearance of the middle class and an exponentially increasing divide between the rich and the poor.

There is a substantial lack of data on the effects of tuition fees on students and universities. These are decisions based on political will and political priorities and it is the role of the university in society to teach and apply critical thinking to break down misconceptions and to serve the whole of society.


A common misconception is that making students pay will increase the amount of funding for education. More often than not, public funding decreases in systems with tuition fees and, for quite a few countries, substantially.

Nor does the money collected from fees go towards improving the quality of teaching. In many cases it goes towards funding activities and projects aiming at increasing a university’s prestige and reputation so that it can get ahead in the international rankings that we know do not give us an accurate picture of educational quality.

In 2011, graduate debt in the US alone stood at US$1 trillion, according to figures from the Education Department itself. The average cost for a four-year bachelor degree at a public university is estimated to be around US$60,000 – with severe effects on access to higher education.

There is clear evidence of how strong debt aversion is for people from lower socio-economic classes and how the fear of debt deters them from going to university.

Going without an income for three to four years and having to pay for living costs in the meantime is a huge burden in and of itself. Add having to pay back US$40,000 for a bachelor degree in England, and it may not be so difficult to understand the choices they make.

Tuition fees also place an additional pressure on many students to work outside their studies, even just to cover their most basic needs. This does change students’ priorities and their engagement in their studies, which logically affects their progression and completion rates.

Educational quality also suffers as standards are lowered to accommodate students who are dependent on part-time and, in some cases, even full-time employment to cover the cost of studying.

Student diversity

It is easy to mistake rising student numbers as a sign of an increasingly accessible and inclusive higher education system. As a good that benefits all of society, the goal is, of course, that the student population should reflect the diversity of the population in society in general.

A case study on Portugal presented at the European University Association’s second funding forum held recently in Bergamo, Italy, showed that currently more than one-third of students identified themselves as ‘wealthy’ and together the wealthy and middle class represent more than 80% of the student population – a total that has grown exponentially since the introduction of tuition fees.

Even so, family income levels tell us little about the overall diversity of the student population. What about students with disabilities, students from ethnic minorities, students from families with low levels of education?

We know that despite the growth in the student population, it still remains an incredibly homogeneous group. There is a long way to go and we need funding and support systems that are inclusive, not exclusive.

Our focus on providing a quality higher education needs to be on student-centred learning, a learning approach that shifts the focus from teachers simply transferring their knowledge to students, to the students’ learning process, their understanding, background and experiences.

This approach promotes learning with teachers and other learners, where students are a part of the community of scholars and co-producers of knowledge together with teachers and researchers.

Viewing students as consumers and teachers as providers of customer service changes the dynamic completely and diminishes the quality of what is learnt and the possibility of mutual learning. Involving students in their learning process and giving them the power to influence it, demands that they are seen as equals and partners in the academic community.


A key part in providing quality in education, and also one of the cornerstones of research and the development of knowledge, is co-operation between students. Creating competition between institutions, professors, teachers and researchers to attract students and treating them as customers goes against this very basic principle and is counterproductive for the development of knowledge and undermines the ability of higher education systems to fulfil their multiple purposes.

Higher education, both research and teaching, is a public good and a public responsibility. It should benefit all of those in society. It is essential for democratic, cultural and social development.

The benefits outweigh the costs. People who are highly educated vote more. People who have higher education have better health. People with higher levels of education commit fewer crimes.

These are just a few very simple examples, but the point is clear. If we want a better society and a better future, we need to prioritise access and quality in education for all parts of society, not just those who can afford to pay.

*Erin Nordal is vice-chair of the European Students’ Union.


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