The case against a ‘free’ education



What a hornet’s nest. I wrote that it seemed cynical for Chilean university students, adults who presumably are responsible, to insist that others pay for their education and, on top of that, to demand the shutdown of any profit-driven universities. A lot of people did not agree with me.

Aside from the insults and personal attacks, which add nothing to the debate, the best argument wielded by those who rejected my opinion had to do with the public good. Society as a whole needs to have good professionals, they said. That way, we all advance. It’s an investment, they maintained, not an expense.

I agree. I believe that education sometimes is an investment, not an expense. In any case, I don’t quite see the social advantage of graduating theologians or philosophers, two very respectable occupations though scarcely productive, but there are other issues that must be considered.

The first is of a moral nature. The state, I insist, should not grant privileges to responsible adults. The advantages of university graduates in the quality of employment and level of salary are notable. The gratuitousness of college education consists in sticking a hand in everyone’s pockets to favor just a few, permanently.

Instead, the state can vouch for loans to university students and encourage them to study. It can also grant scholarships to the best students. Meritocracy is a key factor in the systems that don’t call for an equality of results but for an equal starting point.

Naturally, the parents should also assume responsibility. If those who brought the students into the world and know them best do not believe in them, why should the rest of the citizens risk lending money to individuals who are not going to meet their commitments?

Students who pay for their studies tend to try harder, show greater interest and demand more from their professors. They have more incentive to work and create wealth once they graduate. The loans they repay serve to educate those who come behind them, a fairer deal.

There are free public universities in Latin America where the average number of years of study per student is twice that of private universities. It is well known that the only unalterable law of economics is that “when the supply is free, the demand is infinite and, to boot, the consumer doesn’t appreciate it.”

On the other hand, the resources available from the state are always scarce and must be used more intelligently. If you want responsible adults who become good university students and better citizens, you need to emphasize pre-school, elementary and high-school education.

It is during the early stages of life when character and habits are formed and values are acquired. Almost all children and young people go through those stages.

For the search for equality of opportunities not to be a fraud, the function of the state, through public or private means, is to prepare the children to compete and stand out in life. A boy from a humble home, well nourished and well educated, will then have a real opportunity to get ahead.

The way to have good students in universities is to mold good students in the early grades. At that stage, we need to give them adequate nourishment and excellent, well-paid teachers who utilize good pedagogical methods, so that the students, once they reach adulthood, can make the first vital decisions that will define their destiny: how they’ll make a living, what they’ll study, what activity they’ll undertake, how and when they’ll start their families.

Those of us who have taught in college know the huge difference between students who were formed in good elementary schools and those who went through wretched institutions, almost always public, where the teachers were not well prepared, not motivated or not decently remunerated.

One last and intelligent observation comes from Prof. Albert Benegas Lynch of Argentina. He finds it odd that students who oppose profit rarely take the trouble to help others free of charge once they become professionals themselves.

As I said, the profit that bothers them is the profit made by others.

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