Higher Education: is it a right or a luxury?

On November 14, thousands of students marched in London demanding that free education be funded through taxing the rich. With the Republican tax plan threatening graduate student livelihoods in the US, it is clear that there is disagreement about the role of higher education in both countries.

After the infamous broken promise which saw tuition fees raise to £9000 and last year’s replacement of student grants with loans, the UK is seeing a growing trend of unaffordable education that, for our US counterparts, is all too familiar. The marketisation of academia is a genuine crisis that has long burdened American students, and it is making its way the UK.

At the centre of this looming crisis is the question of what kind of value do we attribute to a university degree. Is higher education a fundamental social right that benefits society at large? Or, as appears to be the case now, is it an exclusively luxury few can afford?

While education should be a fundamental right for all, there is debate over the amount of education this encompasses. Let us consider Germany, a country in which higher education is universally free. Although this seems idyllic – a utopia in which everyone who wants to go to university can do so – the result of this system is far from what we might expect. The number of young people aged 25-34 with a university degree in Germany is just 30 per cent, 20 per cent less than the UK. It is surprising to see that in a country where higher education is free, there are less people eager to pursue it than in one where it is a luxury.

We must ask ourselves who is promoting the idea that a degree is fundamental in ensuring the success and happiness of young people. It may be that the same people benefitting from inflated rates of higher education are the ones putting forth the idea that a university degree is necessary regardless of the expense.

There are too many people paying too much for unnecessary degrees and university places should not only be filled by the few who can pay for them but by those with a genuine drive to complete an academic degree. This is where the current system fails entirely. If higher education is to be taken seriously, then it should be completely cost free. This would encourage students of represented and underrepresented backgrounds to strive for a degree, with the only condition being that they have the aptitude and drive to pursue one.

Higher education should be a tool for the betterment of society. This does not necessarily mean that it should be equally encouraged, particularly for those who would be better off starting their professional lives early. It only means that it should be equally available to anyone. Instead of functioning as an exclusive ivory tower for the privileged few, with masses burdening themselves with unnecessary debt, higher education should be a free option for those who truly feel they would be enriched by a degree.


Image: Nathan Keirn via Wikimedia Commons

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