Whether higher education should be paid: 5 insights about education

Do we need free higher education?

The discussion that paying for higher education will give it both the missing prestige and largely lost quality in society periodically rises again. At the same time, the course for training in working professions is being slowly but surely taken in Russia: technical schools and colleges are becoming resource centres of large industrial enterprises. The question arises: is universal conditionally free higher education really necessary? Maybe we need it like in America? Anna Svirina, the vice-rector for science and development of the TISBI University of Management, reflects on this in her author's column for Realnoe Vremya.

Eyes to the Anglo-Saxons?

The beginning of the academic year always starts a conversation that “universities have recruited future certified waiters, sales consultants and taxi drivers again”, memes in the style of “I really need my diploma — I open beer with it” and videos about how students with red diplomas cannot multiply 10 by 10 are activated.

And the proposal is getting louder: let's already make higher education paid, then people without abilities will not go for diplomas. And gifted children will apply for grants, like in the USA, and will make their way themselves — and they will also appreciate their education, because the grant was not easy for them.

The Anglo-Saxon approach to higher education, when it is not free for anyone (you pay either with money or obligations), seems to be a model of common sense, and its country gives the world more Nobel laureates than any other. So is it worth adopting it?

Insight 1. Not every “study-paid student” wants to learn.

The idea that payment will change attitudes towards the value of higher education seems so obvious that even after 20 years of working in education it's hard for me to believe that it doesn't work. But it's not like that. And this must be acknowledged.

Study-paid students have been studying at Russian universities for a long time, and the percentage of those who really study and those who do not study at all is exactly the same among them as among their colleagues who occupy state-funded places. Approximately 20% of students come for knowledge and demand from the teacher a return on the entire amount of payment, 70% sometimes study, and sometimes not. And the reasons that motivate the remaining 10% to pay to the university for several years in a row are unclear, it seems, neither to them nor to the university.

And this ratio is not only in Russia. Harvard and Stanford professors complain about unmotivated students and incompetent foreigners no less than Kazan associate professors.

Insight 2. Not everyone pays by themselves

Discussing tuition fees, we a priori believe that a state-funded student does not study at his own expense, and the payer will value education more because he pays for it himself (or wins a grant, or receives the support of a future employer, that is, finding funds for payment requires effort from him).

But this is not true for everyone — in Russia, in the vast majority of cases, parents decide everything for the future student, who subsequently pay for his education. The parents of the payer often believe that it is better to pay directly to the university, not to tutors to prepare the child for the Unified State Exam, and the parents of the “state-funded” student — that it is better to invest in training during school and study at the university for free.

In both cases, no one asks the student himself in the vast majority of cases. The money is not his and it's not up to him to decide. And this very often results in a “third—year syndrome” when, after half of the training, the student realises that he has come to the wrong place at all — but at the same time, those who pay for him want him to finish his studies. So the value of such education for his “victim” again remains doubtful.

Insight 3. The price-quality dilemma.

From an economic point of view, price should reflect quality — and education is no exception. We are ready to pay more for high-quality education (and we are far from record holders in terms of its cost, in some Asian countries whole family clans get into debt to learn one relative). But how to measure the quality of education?

Instant employment? It does not work — for example, vacancies for doctors are always open, but is it interesting for a payer after medical university to go to work at 1,5 rates for less money than he paid for his studies? And the labour market tends to change significantly, and during the bachelor's degree it can change beyond recognition — even the profession itself, which the student has mastered, may disappear.

In such conditions, the price ceases to be a reflection of quality but characterises only the prestige of education and expectations of how much this or that profession will be in demand in 4 years. You can not guess. Plus, learning is a two-way road, and you can only teach someone who wants to learn. The rest receive a document stating that they are able to go through a difficult path with a positive result in 4 years — but the result does not necessarily represent a mastered profession. Sometimes it is even on the contrary — in 4 years the student realises that he has mastered just the profession that he does not need.

So what will be the sacred benefit of paying for higher education here? A person can understand that he has come to the wrong place, regardless of whether his training is free.

Insight 4. Talented children DO NOT ALWAYS make their way with the help of grants.

World experience clearly says that this is a utopia. The most famous study of inequality belongs to Piketty (published in 2014) and shows that economic inequality in the world is only increasing every year (as is the average standard of living, however).

Education is one of the most important factors of inequality. Is it likely that a student whose physical education teacher taught physics and chemistry in a rundown village school, because there was no one else to do it, is so talented that he will self-study from lessons on YouTube? Or that a teenager from a marginal family will find the opportunity to apply for a grant and will be able to fill out an application without outside help?

Let's be realistic. It is much more likely that children will repeat the path of their parents. There are happy exceptions, but they are not part of the system. The social elevator on grants works very poorly even in the West.

Insight 5. Paid training at EdTech is also not a panacea.

In recent years, vocational training has become very popular not at classical universities, but on online platforms (often provided by these very classical universities). It would seem that what's the difficulty here? You pay for a course at a Stanford — and stay at home, study. But it's not that simple.

The share of those who do not complete paid EdTech courses is much higher than the share of waiters with red diplomas. In the first years of Coursera's life, when only motivated students studied there, the share of those completing a course was 4%; in a year, it was raised to 7%, and this was a huge achievement. Offline universities are more effective: about 20% of their graduates are fully prepared for their future profession (and sometimes they are successful in it even within the walls of the university).


The question of whether higher education should be paid, in reality— is not about money. This is a question about the value of four years of young people's life for their future. And while this value is not obvious, and the diploma obtained is not always associated with future success, we will continue to discuss — is it worth going to university? And do I have to pay for it?

Anna Svirina

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