The fast-approaching parliamentary elections, in April 2023, have brought an old, familiar ghost back to haunt us: the debate about tuition fees in higher education. Finland’s goal is to have 50 per cent of the young generation in higher education by 2035, but this will be impossible without increasing resources. In some quarters, the introduction of tuition fees is a popular solution to the funding problem, but the idea is just as lame every time it is trotted out.
This autumn, the idea of fees for those who are studying for a second degree seems to have gained particular traction. The idea is that everyone would be able to complete one university degree free of charge, but would have to pay to study for another degree at the same level. This proposal may sound reasonable at first, but upon closer inspection, the cracks in the logic aren’t hard to spot. None of the parties that are proposing fees for a second degree have yet come out with a credible calculation of what concrete benefit the fees might bring about – and, above all, what the establishment of the system would cost institutes of higher education. It seems pretty clear that the system would cost more than it would save.
There are currently a certain amount of students studying for a second degree, but that number would drop if fees were introduced. Nevertheless, a price should be determined for each higher education degree, and the universities and other providers would need to set up processes and administrative structures to collect the fees. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that those things don’t come for free. This being so, it is irresponsible, to say the least, to propose fees for a second degree as a solution to the financial strain facing the higher education system.
It is likely that such fees would lead to the transition from secondary education to higher education being even slower than it currently is. Even as things currently stand, applicants for a study place in higher education are being urged to consider their choice very carefully, since losing the first-time status on accepting a study place puts students at a big disadvantage if they want to apply for a different degree later. It would make more sense for students to be able to begin higher education as quickly as possible, with transitions between fields within higher education institutions being easy enough to make so that those whose first choice turned out to be unsuitable for them could switch to a more suitable degree without having to apply again from scratch. The education system should provide enough leeway for students to change track if things don’t work out first time round.
However, imposing fees for a second degree would mainly have a constraining effect on students’ first choices. Those who are opposing these fees shouldn’t beat around the bush about this – it needs to be said straight out. The fees would not generate more funds for providing education, but they would without a doubt force students into strategising about exactly which study place they should accept and which degree program they want to graduate from. At the same time, the flexibility of the Finnish system would suffer, as students would be left with fewer opportunities to try out different fields and change direction when they find their true calling. In the process, this loss of freedom would make it harder for students to build up a multidisciplinary skill set.
As the rectors of a number of higher education institutions jointly pointed out in an interview with the national broadcaster Yle on 13 December, Finnish education has always been based on equality, which also entails being free of charge to students. This should remain the case. Making the Finnish education system fee-based in this way would not put it on a firmer financial footing, nor would it lead to any improvement in the quality of education or a higher level of education among the population overall. Instead, we would be saddled with an even more inflexible and unequal education system that would be only a shadow of what used to be a source of great pride in this country.