Free Education For All, or Not

The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican.(1509) Raphael Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In my article “The Sorority of The Disenchanted” I offered free education as a solution for unemployment and a few other social issues, which I vaguely described. My mention of Free education fell at the end of the article with a promise that I would be writing a more specific article.

I realized after publishing the “disenchanted” article that I had to either defend or revise my opinion on the basis of facts and evidence (which is a good practice). Fortunately for myself, the discussion about free education is ongoing and there’s a vast body of literature, news, and social commentary to study. Unfortunately for myself, the discussion about free education is ongoing and there’s a vast body of literature, news, and social commentary to study; meaning, there are many facets to this topic-each layer peeled back reveals another.

The most recent discussions on free education have focused on free “higher” or post-secondary education. Bernie Sanders has been a fierce proponent of the idea of free tuition in the United States; the Provincial Government of Ontario released its budget plan back in late February with a few surprises including free college tuition for students from low-income families  [< $50,000] (Csanady); and Germany has free tuition for all students “national and international.” (Denhart) A number of other countries have free education, but I will focus primarily on these three (Canada, U.S, and Germany) with a brief shout-out to Finland near the end of the article.

For many Ontario’s 2016 budget is a victory with “university administrators, faculty associations, and student groups all welcoming the change,” (Schwartz) however the budget has not been free of criticisms. Zane Schwartz in an article for Maclean’s pointed out several discrepancies with the figures used in the budget with a tendency to understate tuition costs. “The government’s math is based on the idea that average tuition costs $6,160. According to Statistics Canada, average undergraduate tuition in Ontario is currently $7,868.”  (Schwartz)

The Provincial government’s rebuttal to assertions about errors in their math is that the figures used don’t include the costs of programs with a higher tuition (i.e. engineering). (Schwartz)

The “government documents talk about covering “average” tuition rates – which is what the new OSG [Ontario Student Grant] will do. The rest of those higher tuition costs will be covered for low-income students, just under another program called the Student Access Guarantee.” (Csanady) This coupled with a reference to a $3,000 figure for which students are responsible, has lead to some confusion about whether tuition would actually be free. The $3,000 expense included in the budget represents extra expenses a student may incur such as costs associated with living and transportation. (Csanady)

Ontario’s 2016 budget has certainly simplified the process of applying for and receiving student aid and opened the door to higher education for students from low-income families. The low-income tuition plan will not take effect until 2017 so time will tell if it works as smoothly in practice as it does on paper.

Ontario’s approach to free-education focuses on a certain demographic, that of students coming from low-income households. The apparent aim of the Provincial government in providing free tuition to students of low-income households is equity-by giving the economically disadvantaged a leg-up, in the form of free tuition, they are able to stand on a level with students from higher income families.

The budgets aim acknowledges a huge gap in post-secondary attendance between the number of students from higher income families and the number of students from lower-income families.  Jonathan Shepherd wrote, in The Queen’s University Journal, that “70 per cent of 18 to 21 year olds from households making $180,000 per year attend post-secondary institutions, only 20 per cent of children from families who make $10,000 will get that opportunity.” (Shepherd) The Ontario government’s noble aim is not at issue, but rather their methods which raise larger questions about the use of government intervention in general.

One early political theorist, philosopher and writer who made a case for limiting the government’s power to meddle in public affairs is John Stuart Mill. Mill (22), in his Essay On Liberty, stated “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” The world has experienced unprecedented population growth, world wars, globalization and a few of the more negative effects of industrialization (though certainly pollution would have been a problem in his own day) since the time of Mill’s writings on Liberty, but his argument remains valid. A case could be made that government power [or intervention] could be rightfully exercised to prevent harm to students of low-income households from an exclusive education system which favors a wealthier demographic and perpetuates poverty.


Environmental Pollution-an obvious and negative effect of industrialization.

Free education discussions have the tendency to either drift in to Utopian fantasy, or get weighed down by comparisons to “free” systems which have failed in the past. The risk than of trying something, such as free education, for a group of people is that if it fails its pitfalls may be used to illustrate how a larger application wouldn’t work.

A well-known YouTuber, That Guy T, released an informative video entitled College Education should Not be free! That Guy T explains the issues with making tuition free when post-secondary institutions are operated as businesses. One of the salient points is that post-secondary education is not for everyone. The second point regards education quality – if government funding results in quality education why are high school diplomas held in such low regard? The third point in the video, which relates directly to my above quote from Mill about the use of power, is that government intervention, in the form of throwing money at problems, often leads to an economic bubble when an asset’s price is far removed from its real value (That Guy T).

Germany has free tuition for all students. Dorothee Stapelfeldt, senator in the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing stated “Tuition fees are socially unjust” and that “they particularly discourage young people who do not have a traditional academic family background from taking up studies.” (Denhart).

The German people had a “2012 tax burden figure of 49.8 percent of income,” and has also had concerns about the costs of students staying in school longer and the decreasing quality of education as a result of government funding (Denhart). Students who pay for the education that they are receiving are less likely to loaf around wasting money on their education; and students are more willing to voice concerns when they’re paying for their education so the quality remains high(Denhart).

The “free education” solution that I offered in my “disenchanted” article would not work if we plopped it with in the existing social-political-economic framework here in North America. My concept of “free education,” which has morphed with my understanding, is, in a sense, Utopian, because it dreams of a society which doesn’t exist here yet.

I had in the beginning of my research only the faint tracings of a vision for what education might look like in a more fair and just society. I was quite willing to become excited about free tuition, even if it was only for some, but the deeper I dig the more the tuition cost discussion seems like a debate over the size of bandage to use while a gaping wound squirts blood.

“Free education?” How about “Fair Education?” A system where the communities, companies, and organizations use smarter methods of recruitment instead of focusing on a person’s degrees, diplomas, and certifications all of which require financial capital to attain.

Many organizations have grants and scholarships in place to help students gain a higher education and it would be possible those organizations could begin scouting out students prior to post-secondary school to place them in a more appropriate stream of education. University sports teams spend a great deal of time and energy scouting talented athletes for scholarships. Why can’t the same be done for people with other talents?

There is a problem which occurs when industry becomes to involved with education, this is clear in places like Japan where entire towns center around corporate life and misery is widespread. A system where corporations and organizations have a larger stake in education has many pitfalls, such as narrowing the scope of education, or censoring out ideas and values which aren’t compatible with the corporation’s values.

Developing an education which adapts to a person’s existing passions, skills, and strengths improving every way-point along the journey of life is essential. The picture which comes to mind, although from a fantasy universe, is that of the Jedi Training Academies where pupils learn in personal environments and an experienced master guides them forward. The skilled trades immediately spring to mind because the trades have maintained many of the more useful ancient traditions, including that of the journeyman and apprentice.

Smaller class sizes contribute to a more personal and interactive style of education.

There have been times in history, perhaps it still happens in certain parts of the world, when a talented poet or musician would take a promising upstart under his wings, a gifted architect shared knowledge first hand to his sons and daughters, and an old Socrates taught a young Plato. But there’s so many people now, these ideas are difficult to practice. Yet we hold on to so many other ideas from antiquity which are even less relevant.

Finland comes to mind when I think of “fair education.”  The education system in Finland  uses an individual’s strengths and interests early in their life as the basis for their career. In North America a standard is used as a mold for every student. The free tuition for students from low-income families and even Bernie Sanders’ vision of free tuition for all both fail to acknowledge the root of the problems with our education system, and the reasons that we’re even focusing on them in the first place-equity.

Even in the short-term post-secondary institutions could play a more beneficial role in society by practicing honesty and enrolling students for programs based, even just a little, on the opportunities available to graduates. The topic of education, like so many topics which crop up in the news and on our social media feeds, has many diverse opinions, and a rich history which we can learn a great deal by studying and discussing openly. A human system is inherently flawed but that doesn’t mean we should set our sights low. A great deal of the path to a better world has been laid, if we put our minds to it we can accomplish great things.

Works Cited

Csanady, Ashley. “Sure, there are (some) catches, but Ontario really is getting free    tuition      for low-income students. Here’s how.” National Post 29 February 2016. Retrieved  13 June 2016, from <>

Denhart, Christopher. “There Is No Such Thing As A Free College Education.” Forbes 3 October 2014. Retrieved 18 June 2016, from <>

Mill, John Stuart. “On Liberty.” John W. Parker and Son, West Strand, London, 1859.  22.

Schwartz, Zane. “Ontario’s ‘free tuition’ promise doesn’t add up.” Maclean’s 26 February 2016. Retrieved 13 June 2016, from <>

Shepherd, Jonathan. “What Ontario’s “free” tuition actually means for students.”The Queen’s University Journal 1 March 2016. Retrieved 14 June 2016, from <>

That Guy T. “College Education should Not be free!” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube   25 July 2014. Web. 9 June

Works Consulted

Campbell, Will. “5 things to know about Ontario’s free post-secondary tuition.” Global News 26 February 2016. Retrieved 12 June 2016, from <

Chiose, Simona. “Ontario to offer grants to cover college tuition for low-income students.” The Globe and Mail 25 February 2016. Retrieved 13 June 2016, from <

Freedman, Josh. “The Promise of Free Public Higher Education.” Forbes 14 February 2014. Retrieved 18 June 2016, from <

Loriggio, Paola. “Post-secondary education to be free for low-income Ont. families.” CTV News 25 February 2016. Retrieved 16 June 2016, from <

Nelson, Max. “Cavuto and ‘Million Student March’ Organizer Clash on Education, Free College.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube 14 April 2016. Web. 9 June 2016.

Rushowy, Kristin. “Free tuition for college or university promised to students from low-income families.” The Toronto Star 25 February 2016. Retrieved 10 June 2016, from <

The Young Turks. “Bernie Sanders: Free College for All.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube 20 May 2015. Web. 9 June 2016

Washington Free Beacon. “Neil Cavuto embarrasses student who wants free college and has no idea how to pay for it. Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube 12 November 2015. Web. 9 June 2016.