This Is Why Higher Education Shouldn’t Be Free

Rory Cockshaw
5 min readJul 26, 2021

Coming from a low-income family — please, don’t make higher education free.

The empty lecture halls of free tuition. Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

There are many policies which sound fantastic when you say them out loud. “Let’s make higher education free for all!” is one of them.

This high-minded, lofty ideal has been a talking point in British politics for a decade at least. The Liberal Democrats, entering into their 2010 Coalition government with the Conservatives, had promised to lower the tuition fees (the opposite happened, but that’s another story entirely), and have long imagined a Britain with no tuition fees at all.

Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Going into the adult world as a blank slate, a tabula rasa, rather than laden with tens of thousands of pounds in debt? Sign me up.

Except… don’t.

What happens when you make something that costs something, free? The cost doesn’t go away — it gets shifted elsewhere. Somebody else’s problem now. For the consumer, it just looks free.

(And yes, higher education has to cost something to someone because universities need to employ countless specialist professors, postdoctoral students, researchers, admin staff, cleaners, welfare services, and so on. The costs of running such monolithic institutions as universities are accordingly monolithic.)

In the UK, we currently pay £9,250 per year (in most universities) as tuition fees. This is covered by a tuition loan of (up to) £9,250 per year. There are also living costs which are not associated with actual tuition — this is just for maintenance, e.g. rent, food, travel, and life. This is covered by a maintenance loan which is scaled inversely with your familial income. I am from a family in the lowest possible income bracket, and so get the maximum maintenance loan.

In total, I get somewhere around £19,000 per year to live and learn at my University. That’s a lot of money.

But University actually costs more than that. It is incredibly difficult to calculate the actual cost of educating a single, average student in the UK (partially because it is much more expensive per year to educate, say, a doctor or a scientist than an Arts student, and it also varies per university) — but estimated range often from £16,000 — £26,000.

Rory Cockshaw

I write about science, philosophy, and society. Occasionally whatever else takes my fancy. Student @ University of Cambridge, Yale Bioethics alum.