Jevgeni Ossinovski: Education is the best public investment

Jevgeni Ossinovski
Jevgeni Ossinovski Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The education system must proceed based on two core values: quality and equal access. Or to put it simply (and to borrow from Barack Obama), so that even the poorest kid would have access to the best education, writes former education minister Jevgeni Ossinovski.

In addition to the individual benefits of education, it plays an important role as an enabler of social mobility. Education is a society's best investment into the next generation doing better than the current one. That is why it is good and just that higher education is free in Estonia.

Of course, it is clear this cannot be allowed to happen at the extent of quality. This fear is likely the reason many people who support equal access as a value of the education system have started speaking up in favor of restoring tuition fees. That would be a bad idea for two reasons.

Firstly, because a universal tuition fee would limit less fortunate people's access to higher education. This would mean that the higher education system meant to help people escape poverty would work to perpetuate it instead.

I put together two OECD databases and saw that societies that do not have tuition fees also have less social injustice. All countries the Gini coefficient of which is below 0.3 have near nonexistent tuition fees in higher education. (Of course, this connection is more than strictly causal, also reflecting social models in general. I am open to debate regarding this matter.)

Secondly, as far as political sociology is concerned, tuition fees achieve the opposite result of what they set out to do. I'm not speaking theoretically here but based on five years of experience putting together state budgets.

In a situation where the accident called Jüri Ratas' second government has not only happened but is likely to stick around for a good while, laying down tuition fees seems like a life preserver to improve universities' financial situation and help maintain quality of education. 

Therefore, while it is a legitimate goal and, at first glance, a seemingly sensible train of thought on the part of universities, it will lead to even faster decline in state higher education funding down the line.

How so? Everyone agrees that we all finance higher education through the state budget. The government is obligated to find the money to offer high-quality education free of charge. Period.

While the government might not always comply with this obligation, which is what we are seeing today, it cannot deny its moral responsibility in terms of higher education financing. Stenbock House, Toompea Castle and the statue of Peeter Põllu are all appropriate places for demonstrations — the state knows this and cannot continue ignoring the need for additional funding if protest voices persist.

The catch with the moral obligation of funding higher education

Were we to allow universities to charge tuition as they see fit, this would all change. It is difficult to imagine anything that would be a greater relief for the government. If today, the minister is forced to tell universities that "unfortunately, the budget was close this year and we could only find five million, but you will be our first priority next year," in the future it would be more along the lines of, "listen, times are tough right now, so just hike tuition fees."

Therefore, giving universities the right to charge tuition would let the government off the hook in terms of the moral obligation to fund higher education. And it would be virtually impossible to put it back on that hook, believe me. Things started out slow in the UK too, with tuition fees of a few thousand pounds. Today, one can easily pay £10,000 for a year in a bachelor's program.

What should universities do, people ask. It is the wrong question in that higher education financing is not a struggle for universities; it cannot be allowed to boil down to an academic discussion between rectors and politicians. It is a struggle for students today, tomorrow, and also for those who have already graduated from university. For the entire society.

We must all raise our voices. On television, in newspapers and in the street. We must lament this inability to find a few dozen million euros and that they seem to be willing to sacrifice the right to higher education of society's weaker members as a last resort. If we allow our world-class higher education and scientific ecosystem to decay, it will also rot our hopes of being a smart and progressive people.

Where should the money come from?

We are talking about a drop in the ocean in the context of the state budget. Whether we will find a few dozen million euros for higher education by constructing a few fewer kilometers of 2+2 highways, increasing fiscal deficit by 0.1 percent or asking Old Town landowners to pay land tax that would be even remotely fair is a matter of secondary political choices one should not become mired in. I'm for all three possibilities and willing to discuss others.

Arguments to counter previous counterarguments

Proponents of tuition fees say that certain subjects could still be taught for free.

That is true. These would become specialties for the poor as opposed to specialties for the wealthy, such as economics, law, medicine etc. that most students could not afford. By the way, the experience of other countries suggests we would eventually also have universities for the rich and the poor.

Another argument is that we could exempt the poor from tuition fees. Again, true. However, how many people can really afford [University of Tartu protector] Aune Valk's proposed €1,000 tuition?

Allow me to remind the reader that only a third of workers make over €1,000 a month as net salary in Estonia. Would it be right to ask people for a month's salary as their child's tuition?

Or what about the student's point of view? To make enough money to pay their tuition, a student would have to work for €5 an hour (which is nearly double the minimum) for 200 hours, in other words for a month. We are already among countries that have the most working students and sport high poverty rates for young adults.

Therefore, if we want to keep access to education from deteriorating, we would have to exempt most students from tuition that would in turn render the whole idea pointless. If we want tuition fees to have any benefit for universities' financing (Aune Valk calculates over €10 million in revenue for her university), nearly every student would have to pay.

We could create a much bigger student loans system that would allow poor people to attend university. But it would leave most of them several dozen thousand euros in debt. While that would seemingly solve the problem of equal access, it would not address the question of social injustice.

A system of funding based on student loans would simply relocate the problem in space and time.

Space — family members acting as guarantors for less fortunate students fail to qualify for repair loans to fix their dwelling because their kid went to the university once upon a time.

Time — young people from wealthier families graduate debt free and can make better professional and personal choices, not having to worry about sticking to repayment schedules. I have written about this (through a possible solution) at length.

It is not fair, it reproduces poverty.

The comment is based on a Facebook post by Jevgeni Ossinovski and is published with the author's consent.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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