Financing higher education: Should students have to pay?


By Guillaume Allègre and Xavier Timbeau

Is it necessary to ensure that a greater portion of the cost of higher education is borne by students in the form of higher tuition fees, which might or might not be coupled with loans? It is often argued that financing higher education through taxes is anti-redistributive. We show in a working document that from a life cycle perspective proportional taxation is not anti-redistributive.

While raising higher education fees is not on the political agenda in France, it is a subject of intense fighting, not only in Quebec, but also in Spain and Great Britain, where student protests erupted at the end of 2010. Reports in France regularly propose raising tuition fees: recently (2011), in a note by the Institut de l’Entreprise [in French] on the role of business in financing higher education, Pierre-André Chiappori proposes “lifting the taboo on tuition fees”. In a contribution to Terra Nova [in French] published in 2011, Yves Lichtenberger and Alexandre Aïdara propose raising annual university tuition fees by about 1000 euros. Paradoxically, the authors also propose creating a study allowance that could be used anytime in a person’s life. The authors are attempting to deal with two contradictory economic dynamics. On the one hand, a study allowance would help raise the general level of education, a factor in innovation and growth, while simultaneously fighting against social self-selection in higher education:
In countries that have adopted it [the study allowance], disadvantaged social strata may have an opportunity to undertake lengthier studies even though their social origins have predestined them to short-term courses that provide quick entry into salaried employment. This is an important means of raising the general level of education and the qualifications of young people, which is a central concern of this report. (Lichtenberger and Aïdara, p.82)
But on the other hand, education benefits better-off strata, and being free makes it anti-redistributive:
The fact that public higher education is virtually free leads, first, to a transfer of resources (the public cost of education) to young people who are in education the longest. This overwhelmingly means young people from better-off strata. This transfer is reflected ultimately in private returns to the beneficiaries: higher wages and then pensions, which benefit the most highly educated throughout their lives…. As things stand, higher education’s free character has no redistributive value and even aggravates inequalities. (Lichtenberger and Aïdara, p.84)
Indeed, even if the anti-redistributive character of free higher education is not the only argument made by advocates of higher tuition, it is one of their main arguments. This argument relies on a static and familialist vision of redistribution. We adopt a life cycle perspective instead.
As highlighted in the second excerpt above, on average the beneficiaries of education spending enjoy a significant private benefit: they will have higher wages and pensions throughout their lives. Even assuming that tax (on income) is proportional to income (which is not the case: in reality, it is progressive), they will pay much more tax, in absolute terms, than individuals who have completed shorter studies. Above all, tax allows for the financing of education by individuals who actually receive significant private benefits, and in proportion to this benefit. People who suffer discrimination in the labour market or who were oriented towards less profitable sectors and benefit from low returns to education reimburse society a lesser amount through their taxes than those who benefit more. Financing through income tax leads people with higher incomes to contribute even when they have not had a lengthy education. The injustice would therefore lie in the transfer between persons with high incomes who are not highly educated and those who are highly educated. But if education is characterized to a great extent by significant social returns, thanks to its impact on growth (see Aghion and Cohen), then people with high incomes are actually beneficiaries of spending on education, whether or not they are highly educated themselves (for instance, self-taught entrepreneurs benefit from the availability of skilled labour).
Adopting a life cycle perspective, we show in a working document that financing spending on non-compulsory education (beyond 16 years) by a proportional tax represents a net transfer from those with higher incomes during their careers to those with lower incomes during their careers. From a life cycle perspective, free non-compulsory education financed by taxes does not benefit individuals with more affluent parents (the transfer from individuals from better-off households to those from poorer households is not significantly different from zero). If individuals from the poorest households react to the increase in tuition fees by reducing their investment in education, even when this is financed by loans, then there can be little doubt that they will be the first victims of this type of reform. Advocates of tuition increases generally argue for small increases in tuition fees and exemptions based on means-testing the parents. But recent developments in Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada show that, once the fees have been introduced, it is difficult to prevent governments that are seeking new funds from increasing the fees and reducing the exemption thresholds.
In higher education, the leading injustice is the lack of access to people from modest backgrounds. The surest way to ensure equity in education is still to fund it through income tax and to reform education so that it is targeted at academic success for all rather than at selection.