Should university education be free? If not, why not?

With the rocketing prices of tertiary education and the availability of free online open courses, will university education become obsolete? What needs to change in the system to adapt to the new realities of the workplace and technology?

Thor May
Brisbane, 2014


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This is an initial starter list for discussing the "Free University " topic. The list makes no special claim to quality, and additions are welcome.



Topic notes from Thor (these notes, like the reading links, will be expanded over time).

Summary of my starting position

  1. Yes, university education, like all basic education, should be “free” – subject to certain conditions. Education is one of the reasons for the existence of the state, like optimizing the health of citizens, providing for the physical security of citizens, and mediating disputes between citizens.

    1. “Free” means that funding comes from general budgetary revenue, however that is raised, and that the service is openly available to all members of the society who are able to benefit from it.

  2. The best kind of education is one which develops each individual to their optimum potential as a human being.

    1. Such “whole” human beings are likely to make the best and most adaptable citizens, lead the most satisfying lives, become the most effective and adaptable employees or employers, and be most open to innovation.

    2. This kind of education needs to attract highly skilled and professional teachers to a role which is truly valued and rewarded by the society.

    3. Education to optimum potential is entirely different from the traditional Confucian ideas of East Asia, and the market dominated management ideas of most current Western education. Both of these narrowly try to “train people for employment”, and tend to fail badly on every metric.

  3. Australian tertiary education at the moment is deeply corrupted.

    1. Although there are plenty of exceptions amongst individual lecturers and in individual departments, the system is not designed for teaching.

    2. Teaching well is mostly not respected or rewarded.

    3. The system is designed for generating revenue for institutions and hierarchies of prestige for individuals.

    4. Prestige derives from research publication (regardless of its ultimate value) and awarded ranks (rather like the military).

    5. Revenue derives from research grants based on publications, and from students, especially overseas students (who bring about $16 billion a year).

    6. Students are the net losers in the present paradigm, and receive the minimum of service at the maximum price. Student productivity receives least priority in the competing hierarchies of productivity amongst institutional players.

    7. The denigration of good teaching in the name of research priorities is a false paradigm. My own experience as a tertiary teacher is that the best research actually comes from good teaching. If you have to explain ideas clearly to non specialists, then you have to clarify those ideas to yourself. (Conferences with other specialists tend to be mutual back scratching exercises, preaching obscurely to the converted).

    8. Most young adults do not yet clearly understand their direction in life. They have limited horizons of expectation. They often have a poor sense of consequences. They frequently waste opportunities which might not return. With these psychological characteristics in mind, I think that tertiary education should be free on a unit by unit basis, step by step, with any failures paid for in cash before proceeding to the next step..


Background Introduction

Australia had a free university system for a fairly short window of time from 1974 to 1989, although a certain amount of state and federal government funded scholarship support had been available since 1940 (Wikipedia 2014, Pitman & Forsyth 2014). From 1989 the university HECS scheme nominated a “student contribution” and a government contribution to the cost of tuition. The student contribution is covered by an interest free loan which does not have to be repaid until the beneficiary is earning a proper income (at the moment $53,345 per annum). Repayments are on a sliding scale from 4% to a maximum of 8% for an income above $99,000 per annum.

At least eight OECD (high income) countries have free tertiary education, and Chile is about to introduce it. Norway also offers free tertiary courses for international students, and Sweden has a number of such courses in technical fields (the entry standards are competitive in both cases). In 2005 Germany introduced university fees for the first time, but has now decided to abandon them.

It is clear that fee free entry for university and other tertiary courses can be a rational economic and social decision for governments to make. The overall costs are less than the expense of free primary and secondary education (the numbers of students and years to pay for are fewer). There is legitimate debate about how well fee free education enables upward mobility for disadvantaged students.

However there is no doubt that social and economic inequality is multiplied by systems such as those in the United States which effectively tie the quality and status of institutions to the higher level of fees they charge. American state universities and community colleges are much cheaper than places like Yale or MIT, but their standards tend to be low, and the vocational prospects of their students are usually far more ordinary. It is no accident that America is a society divided by increasing inequality and rising social discontent.

The management leaders (vice chancellors) of Australia’s most highly reputed universities share a common ambition with the current federal government to redesign the system along elitist American lines. This is a pattern common to the transformation of secondary education in Australia, which now includes a mix of 38% private schools heavily subsidized by government funds, with state schools left to struggle for resources and quality students. A generation ago secondary education was overwhelmingly in state schools which proportionately graduated a large number of the more able students.

Whatever way higher education is paid for, it is clear to most thoughtful individuals who have been through the system that from a teaching and learning point of view the whole thing is working very poorly.

The current university paradigm was designed several centuries ago for small numbers of privileged and typically wealthy students. The idea was to train them to their best potentials as social, political, scientific, medical and commercial leaders with a good grasp of the finest knowledge available in their generation. Through a process of tutorials, debate and discussion in small groups they were expected to develop advanced skills of reasoning and the ability to negotiate the most beneficial compromises for competing interests. They were taught to express complex ideas coherently in extended essays. Such objectives were not always attained, but that kind of university environment optimized the opportunities.

Tertiary education in 2014 is a mass education process. Universities working with the traditional paradigm cannot possibly meet their original objectives when they have to deal with a relentless torrent worldwide of millions of young adults. In fact, quite a while ago universities ceased to be effective teaching, learning and research environments for the largest number of their students. They are, quite openly, marketing organizations run by commercial managers with a whole sub-dialect of marketing spiel spun around words like “excellence” and “rigorous standards”. The real student experience is often demoralizing and a poor preparation either for employment or for the rounded development of the individual.

As an ex-university lecturer, I have to say that the career environment in most modern universities and technical institutes is also appalling. Around 60% of the teaching has been casualized, in Australia, with no chance of permanence for most, ridiculous workloads, bizarre evaluation, and no incentive or possibility for the mentoring relationships which are so central to real learning and inspiration. Clearly a different paradigm is needed, but nobody has yet presented a viable alternative.


2. An Immodest Proposal


Politicans find (but rarely remember) that every policy decision has unintended consequences. The most spectacular examples of catastrophe in this vein are failed wars, and the newspaper jargon of the day tags such unintended consequences as “blowback”. For example, al Qaeda and ISIS terrorist groups are arguably blowback from failed American military projections.

All education which is paid for in time and treasure is subject to evaluation (assessment). Evaluation can take many forms, but evaluation is always a type of policy decision and it always has unintended consequences. In the context of assessment, unintended consequences are called “washback”.  In a mass education process, dealing with students who from a management perspective are no more than transitory statistics, the washback effect becomes extreme. It is fair to say that from secondary school, and right  through tertiary institutions, the vast bulk of what passes for teaching is designed, not to optimize student learning, but to optimize how students respond to known test criteria. That is, washback controls the teaching process. There is no known way to avoid this when we are talking about millions of students and ho-hum teachers or lecturers.

The only near solution to the washback dilemma is  to pay extreme attention to what washback is in fact achieving, and to find ways to have this serve the true task of optimizing the student learning experience. To this point in history, in almost all fields of mass education, this process has received very little attention and elicited no inspired solutions. The reasons for the neglect would take us deep into a study of organizational psychology… In the end however, the solution to this dilemma (and it will not be simple) must lie in what is assessed, and how it is assessed. Please put aside in your mind all of the kinds of examinations and tests you have ever known about. Some of these might be useable at some point, but we need to think about assessment  in very new and innovative ways. We need to think too about who can assess what.

3. A new role for universities

Universities are supposed to be productive environments for groups of uniquely able, specialized and qualified individuals. The knowledge worker productivity of a professor of mathematics (or an entrepreneur like Bill Gates) cannot easily be substituted by sacking one individual and hiring the next person off the street. That is, the marginal utility of all workers in an economy is not equal, regardless of what they are paid. Professors are more rare than production line workers (though not  necessarily paid more). When people have relatively rare skills, it makes sense to make optimum use of their talents.

In a mass education system, a professor cannot make optimum use of his knowledge and abilities by trying to give individual attention to 1000 students. Yes, with additional infotainment skills he can address 1000 students through mass media. However education which is durable usually involves a reciprocal exchange directly with another mind, and the emphasis is on reciprocal (my doctoral dissertations, May 2010, deals with this concept), and this is not feasible with mass numbers. What other unique attribute then does this professor possess, what attribute which can benefit large numbers of students? The key attribute, I think, is that in his area of expertise he is qualified to make judgements. Judgement is a type of assessment.

Perhaps it is possible to think of universities as centres for research, scholarship and … assessment.

People learn in many different ways. Some need the social stimulation of classrooms. Some need the external control of teachers. Some prefer group projects and discussion amongst equals. Some kinds of learning require resources like laboratory equipment and organized research studies. Some people learn happily and productively by themselves in libraries and on the Internet (I am one of those). Some can put aside four years of their life as a kind of extended youth campus vacation. Others scrimp time at the end of a working day for study.

By trying to push all of these different kinds of learners through the mincing machine of a single teaching & learning paradigm, the traditional university or college, we create immense inefficiencies which puts learning decisions into the clammy hands of marketing managers, and pushes costs through the roof. In the end nobody is satisfied.

Let us suppose however that universities became a market, not for bad teaching, but for optimized assessment. Suppose that we didn’t care how you came by your knowledge and skills and abilities. We were only interested in evaluating whether you had somehow acquired what needed to be known. The business of the university would be to do that evaluation, and to lend its imprimatur to what you had achieved.

Supposing that as an educator you felt that there was a market of students who wanted to know about ancient Greek pottery shards, or a certain kind of medical implant, or how to deal with Chinese tourists. Your first task would be plan, and discover experimentally, how on earth your students could acquire a durable knowledge of these things through the kind of assessment criteria you would expect them to meet. You would do this with the knowledge that you yourself would not perform that final assessment. It would be performed by an external expert agent. Your second task would be to find that expert agent within a university and persuade them a) to formally endorse what you wished to teach, and b) to assess what you wished to teach according to the agreed criteria.

The outcome of this kind of washback assessment paradigm would in fact be the emergence of several kinds of new institutions, and perhaps large numbers of personal trainers for individuals or small groups, all claiming to be able to coach students to the standards necessary for formal assessment. None of these individuals or groups would be doing the final assessment. Everything would turn upon the quality of the assessing institutions and its very special judges, assessors, working in perhaps unique ways. The great innovation required would be to find ways NOT to industrialize this whole process.  The worst possible outcome would be the rigid billion dollar coaching and assessment circus we see now with tests like IELTS, TOEFL, GMAT etc.

Where would government funding come in? One approach would be for the government to fund one round of assessment per course per student. In Australia under HECS, students already have a kind of “bank account” with a maximum for the HECS loan they can draw upon. Something like this maximum could be deployed in separate streams for assessment, learning resources, coaching etc.


[more to come]




References & Reading List


Australian Broadcasting Commission (Thu 13 Nov 2014) “Murdoch University chancellor David Flanagan reveals CCC probe allegations against staff”. ABC online @

Blanchette, Cate (2014) “Cate Blanchette’s Whitlam Tribute”. Brisbane Times online @

Cogni+ive website - "Creative storytelling and animation" [for learning] online @

Denhart, Chris (8/07/2013) "How The $1.2 Trillion College Debt Crisis Is Crippling Students, Parents And The Economy". Forbes Magazine, online @

Gittins, Ross (November 16, 2014) "University status comes at a high price". Sydney Morning Herald online @

Gittins, Ross (November 24, 2014) "Students pay for status under uni fee rise". Sydney Morning Herald online @

Hermanns, Deborah (7 October 2014) "Germany is scrapping tuition fees – why can’t England?". The Guardian online @

Kehm, Barbara (13 October 2014) "How Germany managed to abolish university tuition fees". The Conversation online @

May, Thor (1996) "Technical & Further Education in Australia: Is there a star to steer by?". A review of the mission of Australian TAFES, and risks to their skill base. Published in Campus Review (a weekly newspaper for academics with Australian nationwide circulation) April 16-22 1997, p.13 (2000 words); also tabled in the Australian Federal Parliament, December 1996 as part of the Senate committee hearings on The Status of Teachers. online @

May, Thor (1997) " Apprentice Literacy: Designs for a Bonfire of the Vanities". FINE PRINT Vol. 20 No. 4 December 1997 (journal of VALBEC: Victorian Adult Literacy & Basic Education Council, Australia). online @

May, Thor (2002) "The paradox of scholarship: pissing on every lamp post". The Passionate Skeptic website, online @

May, Thor (2008)"Corruption and Other Distortions as Variables in Language Education". online @ or TESOL Law Journal, Vol.2 March 2008

May, Thor (2012) "Language Tangle - Predicting & Facilitating Outcomes in Language Education - PhD Thesis - Thor May". online @

May, Thor (2013a) "International Language Testing Washback – standing the monster on its head". online @ May,

May, Thor (2013b) "The Contest for Competence". online @

May, Thor (2014a) "The Purpose of Education - a hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy?". online @

May, Thor (2014b) " Thor May, 1972 – Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand - Appeal against academic exclusion”. The Passionate Skeptic website, online @

McNeilage, Amy and Lisa Visentin (November 12, 2014) "Students enlist MyMaster website to write essays, assignments". Sydney Morning Herald online @

Morga, George (November 13, 2014) "Back to exams rather than university assessment". Sydney Morning Herald online @

Morris, Neil (4 September 2014) "Don’t dismiss MOOCs – we are just starting to understand their true value". The Conversation online @

Noack, Rick (October 29, 2014) "7 countries where Americans can study at universities, in English, for free (or almost free)". Washington Post online @

Pash, Chris (Nov 24 2014) "The Uni Degrees With The Highest First-Year Pay In Australia". Business Insider, online @

Pitman, Time & Hannah Forsyth (8 March 2014) "Should we follow the German way of free higher education?". The Conversation online @

Robinson, Ken et al (14 October 2010) "Changing Education Paradigms" [11 minute introduction]. RSA Animate Youtube version, online @

Robinson, Ken et al (14 October 2010) "Changing Paradigms" [55 minute lecture]. RSA Animate production, online @

Safi, Michael (25 November 2014) "Journal accepts bogus paper requesting removal from mailing list". The Guardian online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Tertiary education fees in Australia". Wikipedia online @  


Should University Education Be Free? (c) Thor May 2014


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