As the big players position themselves at the starting line for their 2016 US presidential election runs one of the biggest surprises so far has been the success of the left-wing Democrat candidate Senator Bernie Sanders. The self-declared democratic socialist has struck a chord with the American electorate, particularly with a young demographic for whom Senator Sander’s call for “a revolution in the way higher education in funded” has resonated strongly.
In reality, Bernie Sanders is very unlikely to be elected as the 2016 Democrat presidential candidate, especially considering he is up against the political behemoth Hillary Clinton. But that doesn’t mean that the issue of tuition-fees isn’t still of high importance. Here, look at how three systems around the world tackle higher education funding alongside the advantages and disadvantages of these approaches.
Universities in the US are split into two categories, public and private. State universities receive part of their funding from the government while the top institutions are generally run as private non-profits. Tuition fees vary depending on the institution. A public college 4 year course, for example, may cost the student around $9,139 per year. At a private non-profit university a similar 4 year course will cost in the region of $31,231 per year. Scholarships and grants are available for a few students, while the rest rely on federal loans which have a broad range of repayment plans.
The advantages? The taxpayer contributes relatively little to the cost of higher education, meaning they are not burdened with a service they do not directly benefit from. Private non-profit universities are free to expand rapidly and the USA boasts some of the highest ranked institutions in the world.
The disadvantages? The lack of secure financial support means that many students cannot afford to go to college, making affluence the deciding factor in education rather than aptitude. Moreover, those that can risk being hounded by unpayable debt repayments for the rest of their life, an issue Senator Sanders has made the cornerstone of his campaign.
The Scandinavian Model
A polar opposite system to the US, and one favored by Senator Sanders, is that employed for higher education in the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. Like many European systems Scandinavian universities receive the bulk of their external funding from the state, accrued via the tax paying population, meaning studying is almost completely free. Although the cost of living is higher in Scandinavia, most students therefore emerge from university with minimal debt.
The advantage? Universities are able to enroll the best students on the basis of merit, rather than their ability to afford it. The percentage of the population with a university education is higher than in fee paying systems and therefore, theoretically, better qualified for a wider range of roles in society.
The disadvantage? Tax payers that don’t attend university fund institutions which they do not benefit from directly. Moreover, the relatively minimal financial commitment to attending university means students spend longer on degrees, increasing the cost of their study while denying their labor and means of production to the nation’s economy.
The UK system can be thought of as falling somewhere between the USA and Scandinavian models. Universities fall under the loose control of the state, which permits them to charge up to £9,000 (around $14,000 US) per year for tuition while still receiving a portion of government funding, primarily for science and technology subjects. The government loans money to students to cover these fees; however, unlike the US model, graduates only have to start repaying this loan after their annual earnings rise above £21,000. Moreover, if after 30 years the debt is not re-payed then it is simply written off.
The advantages? The burden of university funding on the tax payer is alleviated while the ease of loan repayment should encourage students from lower income backgrounds to apply.
The disadvantages? Including maintenance loans a typical three year university course can land students in over £50,000 worth of debt which, in practice, dissuades poorer students from attending. Furthermore, the government’s policies of tying repayments to earnings and wiping out the debt after 30 years means that, inevitably, many of these loans are predicted to go unpaid.
Which system is best?
Judging which system is ethically and practically best is the source of intense ideological debate. For instance, student debt in America accounts for a staggering $1 trillion, but does that mean higher education should be made free or simply that it should be made more efficient? Many educational providers in the US have already moved to streamline courses, such as evoprep which uses online resources and workshops to reduce the cost of achieving a post graduate school administration qualification.
One thing is for sure, whether the next President of the United States is Bernie or Hillary, Republican or Democrat, college funding is going to be top of the agenda.