Tuition fees part 3: Quality with economic logic?

According to the supporters of tuition fees, one of the most central justifications for them is that with the help of them it is possible to compensate for the deficit in funding created by the cuts in education and the challenges it poses to improving the quality of education. Supposedly, tuition fees would automatically help to improve the quality of education when students as paying customers would demand more. According to the supporters of tuition fees, quality would also function as a tool for competition between universities.

The first problem with this justification is that it is assumed that tuition fees would increase the amount of funding for higher education institutions as a whole, in other words, that the fees would not have the opposite impact on the amount of public funding. On the one hand, a politically determined funding is considered to be unreliable and, on the other hand, international examples are used, but here Etla abandons both. International examples show that if decision-makers find an alternative source of funding, they usually decrease the amount of public financing in the same relation. In the United Kingdom, this holds true, especially when it comes to the “moderate tuition fees” at the initial stage, even though later on, when the fees were extremely high, it was no longer justified to decrease public funding.

Secondly, no one asked the students themselves. Instead, they decided to assume that when a student changes from being a member of a community to being a paying customer, he or she requires higher-quality teaching. Surely, tuition fees would create an even greater pressure for the students to graduate more quickly. In this case, increasingly flexible study possibilities are required. Current examples suggest that time pressure does not encourage the students to participate in developing education, but time and resources are devoted to the actual studies. At the moment, the students already demand quality and take part in improving it. Instead of collegial co-operation, the suggestion would keep universities constantly on their toes so that students will not sue them for poor-quality teaching, as they did in Sweden.

According to researchers, another indicator of quality is demand: A student applies for a degree programme which offers teaching of the highest quality. This would, however, require that a student could make a well-informed decision solely on the basis of quality. In reality, the choice of what to study after secondary education is made with a little knowledge of what studies actually include. In the United Kingdom, a university’s reputation has a greater impact on the demand than the content of education. When it comes to a university’s reputation, it is based on, for example, the success of graduates in working life. In order for demand to be truly based on the realisation of expectations, “the customer” should have the possibility of voting with their feet. This is, however, made more difficult by the admissions system in Finland: At the moment, students who change their field of study lose their extra points when applying for a new degree programme – extra points which are actually intended for students who apply for a degree programme for the first time.

Although tuition fees would increase the total amount of funding, the change in the source of funding would create other more powerful incentive effects than improving the quality of education. According to economic logic, the producer who is the most successful is the one who is able to create the greatest demand for their product, but manages to keep production costs as low as possible, which means that by raising the price of the product, it is possible to maximise the profit. What this means in practice is that a university should concentrate on the most popular fields of study and offer low-cost education by, for example, reducing the number of teaching hours. The funding model suggested by the ministry aims at a balance between different fields and areas and – despite its weaknesses – guides towards improving quality by monitoring, for example, possibilities to gain the required study rate and to find work that corresponds to one’s education.

All this shows that researchers have not actually bothered to define what they mean by quality of education. In my opinion, high-quality education means that there is individual support for learning and help from senior researchers, as well as guidance for your chosen career. The arguments in favour of tuition fees seem to suggest that quality of education is mainly an impression of the reputation of a higher education institution or the fact that no one has yet sued the school for marketing their product in the wrong way.

Riina Lumme

SYL Vice President

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