As I write this, a group of students are occupying a cafe in the Sheffield student union building and are demanding, among other things, ‘free education’. Lots of people think we ought to have a free education, and that the state ought to redistribute wealth in order to pay for it; I’m inclined to agree. The students aren’t really campaigning for free education though. After all, they’ve already had around fifteen years of free education offered or provided to them by the state. No, what the students want is ‘more free education’, paid for through redistributive taxation. Whilst there might well be a strong case for some free education, I don’t think the case for a right to eighteen years of it is self-evident.
What sorts of justifications are there for a right to free education? The strongest reason, I think, is the sort of argument made by J.S. Mill: in order for us to live decent human lives we need to be free. Freedom, for rational agents, requires being able to make choices and pursue life plans and in order to do this we need sufficiently developed rational capacities. Education helps us become sufficiently good reasoners and gives us sufficient knowledge to evaluate our choices, so it is necessary to enable us to be properly autonomous. In other words, education is a necessary condition acting autonomously and so being free.
Another good reason for thinking we ought to provide free education, is that education is a social good. A society of uneducated people is likely to be worse than a society of educated people, and we all benefit from universal education. Therefore, society ought to pay for education.
Both of these are good reasons, but it’s not clear to me that either fully justifies free higher education. We might ask how much education is necessary for us to be able to reason and evaluate choices? The answer is probably not eighteen years worth. What higher education almost certainly does is make us better at those things, but that doesn’t mean that we have a right to it. If I have a right to sufficient food to live a minimally decent life, it doesn’t mean I have a right to enjoy gourmet food or enough food that can barely move for having stuffed myself. Presumably we don’t we think we ought to have a right to as many years of free education as we wish?
However, it is true that higher education provides a social good: we are better off as a society for the presence of trained doctors, engineers, chemists, creative artists, programmers, therapists, architects, and so forth. The social good of higher education comes at a cost: money has to be redistributed to those currently in education. That means that those not in higher education are likely to be paying for those enjoying it. Perhaps this would be OK if all in higher education contributed positively to the social good, and if all in society benefited equally from it, but they don’t. Some higher education produces more social good than other higher education (although which subjects produce most, and by how much is an almost impossible question to answer). Recipients of higher education simply don’t contribute equally. Nor does everyone in society benefit equally from it. Partly, this is because higher education is also a private good: having a degree increases earning potential. If education is free, it may well mean that my local postman is having his earnings taxed in order to pay for the education of someone studying to become a banker (boo hiss!). That doesn’t seem fair to me.
It seems to me that the first reason supplied means that we ought to have a right to free education up until the point that we are regarded as autonomous adults. Given that higher education is a public good, it also seems to me that the state should contribute towards its cost. However, since higher education is also a private good – one that not everyone is able to avail themselves of, and in the interests of fairness, the individual should also contribute towards its cost. Since some education is more of a public good than others, perhaps the state should contribute variable amounts depending upon the subject. In practice, determining comparative social goods may well be too complex to do this in many cases – but it might be an argument for greater or lesser subsidy in clear cases. More money for nursing, less for the study of air-guitar!
It’s for these reasons that I will not be accepting the polite invitation sent to me earlier today to provide free seminars to the occupying students.