One supporter of tuition fees after another tell us how they are worried about the hereditary nature of education and obstacles to mobility between social classes. After this, they typically tell us that tuition fees will actually even out differences which are due to a student’s background. Next, they usually present a loan system in which only those who have graduated and have a well-paid occupation would have to pay the loan themselves.
Following this train of thought, tuition fees are justified by the fact that they do not have a statistically significant effect on social mobility in, for example, Great Britain or Ireland. This view ignores the fact that for a potential student who comes from a poorer background a statistically small and apparent obstacle is often crucial.
According to these economists, income limits set to loan repayment should make it seem like a risk-free investment for students: If you lose your job or end up in a low-paid job, the state will make the repayments for you. In the long run, this sounds like a good deal. One could also say that the current student loan is a very low-risk loan with flexible repayment terms, but despite this over half of the students never take out this loan. Studies show that students who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds avoid taking out a loan most of all.
It would certainly be convenient if students would act as rational consumers and understand at the age of 18 how their income level after graduation affects the loan terms. However, this is not the case, but it is a psychological phenomenon. Willingness to take out a loan is closely related to a person’s subjective view of their future income level. This view is often based on a person’s family background: If a person is accustomed to a lower level of income, they will also estimate their economic success less likely, which makes taking out a loan seem less attractive.
A family’s income level will also have an influence on how the parents can support the student. An alternative source of income for a loan is often the parents’ support, if it is possible. Even moderate tuition fees would triple the average amount of student loan compared to the current amount, in which case the parents’ support would be even more important. Consequently, a student who comes from a wealthy family would probably not pay for their studies, but the amount could be paid by the parents.
It is especially noteworthy that the most hereditary occupations are well-paid academic professions: doctor, lawyer, economist, and so on. Thus, it is more likely that a student who after graduation gets a well-paid job comes from a family in which the parents can support him or her financially. Actually, those students who come from a poorer background and get a well-paid job would pay the most. Therefore, it is very difficult to see how tuition fees would increase social mobility.
The arguments presented by Etla and others are once again based on a single scientific study without any further consideration and without putting the arguments in context. Even though a payment system does not decrease social mobility in one society, this does not mean that the effect would be the same in Finland. Although inequality exists even before higher education, there is no reason why equality should not be promoted even there. And even if the obstacles to social mobility would not be statistically significant, this does not mean that there would be no obstacles from a student’s perspective.
If we are seriously worried about the hereditary nature of education, we should increase accessibility of education instead of putting more obstacles in the way of education. If we are concerned about education’s contribution to salary increase, there is no use in punishing a person for educating themselves, but we should rather offer each and every one a real and equal chance to fulfil their potential.
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