the Privilege of a University Education

Students Should Pay for nthe Privilege of a University Educatio


As enrolments and operating costs increase and global competition intensifies, universities are in need of more funding. In Canada, government contributions to university budgets fell from 80 percent in 1990 to 57 percent by 2007. To make up for the resulting shortfall, students have been making up the difference in the form of tuition fees. This state of affairs is consistent with an increasing public sentiment that students should be paying for their own post-secondary education. Three main reasons are proposed to support the idea that university should not be free. First, a competitive system provides incentives for professors, administrators, and students to work harder and more efficiently. Secondly, the factors that motivate people to go to university are positively correlated with the financial means to pay for their education. Finally, and perhaps most convincingly, it is unfair for taxpayers to pay for the education of a minority who stand to make substantial financial gains as a direct result of having a university degree.


Competition is an integral part of an institution that is not publicly funded. Students become customers upon which universities depend for revenue. In order to compete for students’ business, universities have a strong incentive to offer innovative programmes, cutting-edge facilities, and high quality teaching. For professors, who traditionally focus on their research for tenure and promotion, this means concentrating on teaching by offering engaging and challenging courses and being available to students for consultation. Furthermore, with sufficient funding from tuition fees, universities are able to attract high profile faculty members who instigate innovative research, attract research funding, and boost the reputation of the university. For administrators, the absence of a safety net in the form of government grants reduces bureaucracy and promotes efficiency. All of these factors result in a better quality experience for students.


Paying for their university education is also an incentive for students to work harder. Evidence from Germany, where higher education is fully subsidized, reveals that most undergraduate students take five to six years, and in some cases even up to ten years, to finish the equivalent of an undergraduate degree, which is earned in three to four years in fee-paying systems.


Drawing on data from 2003, Statistics Canada published a report in 2007 exploring why people from low-income families are less likely to attend university. The report found that only 12 percent of the gap in university attendance between higher and lower-income families was related to being from a low-income family. The report identified academic performance and parental influence as the strongest predictors of university attendance, followed by what school the students attended and what their grades were. A similar tendency is apparent in Germany. In 1989, of the 33 percent of all thirteen to fourteen year-olds from working class families, only 11.5 percent entered the university stream at high school and only 7 percent ultimately went on to attend university. Since post-secondary education is free in Germany, this indicates that there are other more important factors which lead young people from low-income families to choose not to go to university.


This data clearly indicates that, for a variety of reasons unrelated to money, youth from low-income families do not, on the whole, attend university. This leaves us to conclude that people who do attend university are not from low-income households and, therefore, can afford to pay for the privilege.


In a system which does not charge fees to its students, taxpayers shoulder the costs of running the university. This is doubly unfair for taxpayers. According to data from the 2006 census, only 23 percent of Canadians between the ages of twenty-five and sixty-four reported having a university degree. While not even a quarter of Canadians have benefitted from a university education, all taxpayers have helped to pay for it. In other words, 77 percent of taxpayers are paying for something and getting nothing in return.


The unfairness is further exacerbated by the fact that university graduates enjoy wider career prospects and higher salaries than their non-university-educated counterparts. According to conservative estimates, university graduates in the United Kingdom (UK) earn £160,000 more over their lifetimes than people with only a high school diploma. In Canada, the discrepancy is much higher. According to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), university graduates can expect to earn a million dollars more in their lifetimes compared to people who have no post-secondary education. These statistics show that there is a direct financial benefit to being university educated. Therefore, not only do taxpayers receive nothing in exchange for financing universities, they give university students the opportunity to get ahead financially.


Since having a university education is clearly an investment on which only graduates can reap a direct return, it is only fair that they should pay for their own studies. This argument also extends to the small minority of low-income students. Not having the financial means to pay tuition fees while working on a degree becomes a moot point when graduation will lead to a well-paid career.


Universities that are funded entirely by public monies are non-existent in North America. Many European countries, however, still offer free higher education and are reluctant to introduce fees for fear that enrolments will drop. In spite of a strong tradition of free university in England, tuition fees were introduced in 1997. The result was that university populations continued to grow with the knowledge that the long-term payoff was worth the investment, and the increased fees improved the overall university experience for students.



Hanson, R. (2014). Students should pay for the privilege of a university education. Canadian Points of View: Free University, 3. Retrieved from