On today’s episode, we are going to look at the idea of free education. Should university be free? This question has been debated for many years. The costs have been rising every year, and more and more graduates are struggling with large amounts of debt. In particular, poorer students are normally those who need to borrow the most money. Should they be punished for wanting to educate themselves? Should taxpayers pay for the education of other people? All of these questions will be addressed in today’s episode of thinking in English!

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Proportion (n) – the number or amount of something when compared to the whole

Children make up a large proportion of the world’s population! 

Tuition (n) – teaching, especially when given to a small group or one person, such as in a college or university

All students receive tuition in maths!

To saddle with (Phrasal v) – to give someone a responsibility or problem that they do not want and thus will cause them a lot of work or difficulty 

The company is saddled with debt!

Crippling (adj) – causing serious injuries or harm 

The bomb attack dealt a crippling blow to tourism in the country

Default (n) – a failure to do something, such as pay a debt, that you legally have to do 

Any default on your mortgage payments may mean you will lose your house!

Burden (n) – something difficult or unpleasant that you have to deal with or worry about

Buying a house is often a large financial burden on young people!

Notably (adv) – important and deserving attention

Other sports have had work stoppages, most notably baseball!

Vocational (adj) – providing skills and education that prepare you for a job

The school offers vocational programs in welding, electrical work, and construction

Amenity (n) – something, such as a swimming pool or shopping centre, that is intended to make life more pleasant or comfortable for the people of a town, hotel, or either place

The council is spending money on many new public amenities! 

What is the key to success? How do you improve your career prospects? Or enter the respected professions such as law, medicine, or academia? How do you earn a good salary? Or make international connections? Although there is no one answer to these questions, education, in particular university level education, goes a long way to achieving success. Research from the Sutton Trust, a respected UK based educational think tank and charity, suggests that despite a large and increasing proportion of the UK workforce holding a higher education qualification, university graduates still enjoy a large earnings advantage over nongraduates. In the UK,  male university graduates earn on average 28% more than nongraduates, while female graduates earn up to 50% more! Furthermore, the better the university attended, the greater the graduates earning potential and career prospects. 

However, University is not free. Around the world, tuition fees have been rapidly rising over the last few decades to £9000 a year for UK domestic students and even more in the US! Moreover, the additional expenses can be even greater than tuition; accommodation, insurance, textbooks, food and living expenses! The average graduate in the UK has £40,000 worth of debt by the time they graduate. Think about that. That is the average figure – which means a considerable amount of people have even higher debt. I’m one of these graduates. I have two student loans (one for undergraduate one for masters), which combined with unfriendly interest rates on these loans, makes it unlikely I will be able to pay off my loan anytime soon! In particular, it is the poorer students around the world who are normally saddled with the larger sums of debt; the rich don’t really need to borrow to fund their education. This situation has led to renewed calls to consider reducing tuition fees, or even abolishing fees in entirety. The rest of this podcast is going to look at some of the positives and negatives regarding making university tuition free! 

First, and one of the most convincing arguments, is that tuition-free education will help decrease crippling student debt. As i already mentioned, the average student in the UK graduates with around £40,000 of debt (this is a combination of loans for tuition and loans for living expenses) and faces harsh interest charges. In fact, a 2019 report claims that 83% of UK graduates will never pay their loans back in full. This is because of relatively kind repayment plans. Nevertheless, if they are never going to pay the loan back, and the government knows this, why do they insist on continuing the loans system. The situation is even worse in the USA, which doesn’t have as kind repayment plans.  Student loan debt in the United States currently exceeds $1.5 trillion, with 44.2 million Americans having student loan debt, and 10.7% of those borrowers in default. In the words of Us Senator Bernie Sanders, an advocate for free college, “It is insane and counter-productive to the best interests of our country and our future, that hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college, and that millions of others leave school with a mountain of debt that burdens them for decades. That shortsighted path to the future must end.”

On the other hand, nothing is ever truly free; tuition-free college is not free college and students will still have large debts. Tuition is only one of the many expenses university students face. In fact, it is not always the biggest expense. In the US, for example, fees, room, and board for on-campus housing are on average $11,140, while books and supplies are another $1,240, transportation adds $1,160, and other expenses can cost another $2,120. Therefore, even without tuition fees, college still costs an average of $15,660 per year. Reducing tuition fees will reduce debt to some extent, but it will not solve the fundamental problems!

A second argument is that free education has been of great benefit to countries in the past. For instance, the US economy and society has benefited from tuition-free college in the past; most notably through the 1944 GI Bill which ensured military service members, veterans, and some of their families could attend college tuition-free.The GI Bill allowed 2.2 million veterans to earn a college education, and another 5.6 million to receive vocational training, all of which helped expand the US middle class. GI Bill recipients generated an extra $35.6 billion over 35 years and an extra $12.8 billion in tax revenue. The 1944 GI Bill paid for the educations of 22,000 dentists, 67,000 doctors, 91,000 scientists, 238,000 teachers, 240,000 accountants, 450,000 engineers, three Supreme Court Justices (Rehnquist, Stevens, and White), three presidents (Nixon, Ford, and H.W. Bush), many congressmen, at least one Secretary of State, 14 Nobel Prize winners, at least 24 Pulitzer Prize winners, many entertainers (including Johnny Cash, Paul Newman, and Clint Eastwood), and many more.

In contrast, opponents of free education often argue that taxpayers would spend billions to subsidize tuition, while other university costs remain high. Removing tuition fees entirely will require tax increases, or it will force governments to move existing resources into higher education and away from other priorities like health care, prisons, roads and school education. Governments could lose money from public institutions tuition fees, while actually having to invest more to subsidise education! This argument can be summed up through this question. “Why should people who want to go to college get it paid for in part by people who pursue on-the-job training or other forms of non college education?” Especially when tuition fees don’t just pay for teaching and libraries, but can go towards gyms, restaurants, cafes, and other amenities

Finally, everyone deserves the opportunity to get a college education. Tuition fees, however, are often a problem facing poor or disadvantaged young people! The more educated people are, the more money they will earn, the more tax they will pay, and the more qualified people will be in the workforce. If college is essential for building a career and being a full participant in society, shouldn’t it be free, paid for by public money, and treated as a right of all members of our country?

However, will free university actually have this effect? Well, some argue that tuition-free college will actually decrease completion rates, leaving students without the benefits of a full college education and degree. Students will enroll at a ‘free college’ and borrow money for the cost of attendance. Then, they will drop out and have a student loan – but no skills. Potentially millions of young people who have no business attending college would waste their time — and taxpayer dollars — seeking degrees they will not obtain.

Final Thought

Over this episode, we’ve looked at a number of arguments for and against free education. On the one side, everyone deserves to be educated and shouldn’t be saddled with unmanageable debt. On the other hand, nothing is ever free and should those who don’t go to university have to pay for others’ education! What do you think? What is the situation in your country? What would you do if it was your decision? For me, I believe education should not put you in debt for the rest of your life. Despite this, I also believe that more money should be invested in alternatives to university; professional training, apprenticeships, etc. University is not for everyone, but it should be available for everyone who wants to go! 

Comprehension Questions

Q. How much debt does the average UK graduate have?

A. £40,000

Q. Name 3 things I mentioned that the GI bill paid for.

A. 3 of the following – 22,000 dentists, 67,000 doctors, 91,000 scientists, 238,000 teachers, 240,000 accountants, 450,000 engineers, three Supreme Court Justices, three presidents , many congressmen, at least one Secretary of State, 14 Nobel Prize winners, at least 24 Pulitzer Prize winners, many entertainers 

Q. True or false. Bernie Sanders is an opponent of free education.

A. False

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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