The Free Tuition Impulse
A few weeks ago I presented yet more evidence about why free tuition was mostly a subsidy for the rich and was unlikely, on its own, to do very much with respect to equalizing access (scroll through here and here if you really want to read me on this subject, though I imagine most of you are pretty familiar with my spiel by now). Someone asked me: “why don’t people like the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) get this? Surely they can read the evidence, why would they persist in touting a solution which is manifestly regressive”?
There are two possible answers to this question. One is that in fact they have not read the evidence. It exists, and they know it exists, but just haven’t read it. As long as they don’t read the work which falsifies their notions, they can continue to hold these notions. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair “It is difficult to get a man to read something, when his salary depends upon his not reading it”.
I actually got confirmation of this the other day on Twitter. I was trying to get CCPA’s chief economist David MacDonald to explain why CCPA holds diametrically opposed positions on universal electricity subsidies (bad because they go disproportionately to the rich) and PSE subsidies (awesome, because they benefit the poor – which actually they don’t always, but that’s their story and they are sticking to it). Basically, his two lines of defense were “it’s a public good” and “it doesn’t matter if most benefits go to rich because if we make education cheaper more poor students will go”. The first, even if you assume he meant “there are positive externalities to higher education spending” (which is true) rather than “it fits economists’ description of a public good” (utterly false), is not a 100% sensible rationale as it arguably also applies to electricity to some degree (i.e. “there are positive externalities to people not freezing to death in their homes”). But the second is ridiculous. We know for a fact that tuition levels have almost nothing to do with access rates in part because targeted student aid actually works. So I pushed him on it. “Have you really read nothing about access problems in zero-tuition jurisdictions? I asked. Have you never looked at the rather substantive literature on finances and access”? No reply. Which, I think, tells you what you need to know. People like David MacDonald and the CCPA simply do not want to know. But that’s only half an answer: why don’t they want to know? If they know that free tuition is ineffective as a remedy and regressive in distributional outcomes, why support it? What other agenda is at play?
Well, a few years ago, when I was at a small event on Chile looking at the issue of tuition, I finally came to understand this problem. A colleague and I were asking our Chilean counterparts: why do you want to make tuition free? You must know it will make very little difference in access to higher education. To which one of our counterparts replied: the point is to get rid of the market. The market must not decide in higher education.”
And so it is in Canada, I think. The anti-tuition people are not fundamentally pro-access (though that is how they rationalize their position), so much as they are pro-state. I suspect it’s partly due to a left-ideological stance which generally favours greater state involvement across the economy, but also partly to a naïve view about what would happen inside universities if the need to satisfy the market ever disappeared. Such as: that public money would magically replace private money and continue to grow at a pace vastly outstripping inflation forever after. Such as: nasty private sector Board member would be replaced by bureaucrats or more sympathetic public appointments or – better yet – make academics a majority on governing boards. And magically, contrary to every bit of evidence from continental Europe, government running 100% publicly-funded universities would be less intrusive and meddling in institutional affairs than they currently are.
Once you realize that the free tuition argument is really a government vs. market argument and not a “how do we best equalize opportunities argument”, it becomes perfectly clear why evidence on the efficacy of tuition in promoting access doesn’t faze the usual suspects. They don’t actually care about access. They care about resisting the market. The access stuff is just sheep’s clothing.