Tuition-free education is not necessarily "free", says professor

Augustana music professor Alexander Carpenter noted high-income taxes in Austria and less student support services at the University of Vienna, a tuition-free institution, while there on a five-week teaching term.

Tia Lalani - 01 February 2019

By Alexander Carpenter

The University of Vienna. Image courtesy of Johann Gumilar on Flickr.

In the fall of 2018, I spent five weeks as a visiting professor at the University of Vienna, in Austria. The "Uni," as it is known locally, provides opportunities for professors from non-European Union partner universities to teach in Vienna, giving its students a more globalized educational experience. I had the chance to meet and interact with European students and academics in one of the continent's oldest and largest universities-and one that is free to attend.

Vienna is, among many things, a "university town." A city of just under two million inhabitants, Vienna boasts a student population of almost two hundred thousand, half of whom study at the Uni. What accounts for this phenomenon? No doubt tradition and history play a role: Vienna has been a university town for nearly 700 years (founded in 1365), and the Uni itself is the oldest in the German-speaking world. The city's long-time status as an Imperial capital, along with its dynamic arts and music scenes, turbulent political climate, majestic architecture and vibrant multiculturalism have long attracted intellectuals, artists and activists of all stripes, with the Uni at the centre of it all.

Surely, another reason for the Uni's prodigious student enrollment, is that it is free. Citizens of the EU pay only student union fees-the equivalent of about $30 Canadian a semester-to attend university in Austria and study for a bachelor's degree, provided they complete the degree within a prescribed length of time (four years). What does this mean for the quality of the educational experience for students, and for Austria itself?

It did not appear that students were any less engaged in their studies because it was free: my students were interested, attentive, well prepared and worked hard. They also complained about workload, made excuses for late work, gossiped about teachers and other students and struggled to balance school, jobs and social lives-not much different from their Canadian counterparts. My students in Vienna were rather sanguine about education and the future, and did not see the study of an esoteric field like musicology as a means to an end, but rather as something valuable in and of itself. Austria clearly views post-secondary education, in economists' terms, as a "merit good."

But how "free" is this education? Austrian income taxes are very high, relative to Canada: one enters the tax system there with an income above seventeen thousand, in the 25% tax bracket (seventeen thousand is below the poverty line in Canada); once income hits ninety thousand in Austria, one is in a 50% tax bracket. In Canada, one would be taxed at about 25% at this level.

Besides being a continental cultural center, Austria boasts one of the highest standards of living among the economies of the world, ranking highly in per capita gross domestic product. The Austrian government, using the substantial tax revenue it receives, provides health care, post-secondary tuition and a wide range of social services and benefits to its citizens as part of its generous welfare state. The citizens of Austria surely enjoy many benefits from this system; none of it, however, is "free."

Recently, Canada's NDP made free tuition part of its platform. However, as Tristan Hopper recently argued in the National Post, free tuition is not the "silver bullet" that it is sometimes made out to be. It, apparently, does not benefit the poor as we might imagine (rather, it is a boon to the wealthy), does not automatically lead to higher rates of post-secondary enrollment and does little to address socio-economic inequality.

My direct experience with university free-tuition revealed a system in which students have unfettered access to education, but that imposes greater personal responsibility and with much less support and fewer services from their school, not to mention low faculty salaries and exploitative hiring practices that keep costs down while providing little security for academics. I am not making an argument here for or against free tuition, or socialism or the welfare state. I would suggest that this is not a simple issue, and the current political rhetoric is simply not doing it justice. Ultimately, a central question remains: how do we calculate the value of a university education?

Alexander Carpenter, Music, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column first appeared in the Camrose Booster on January 29, 2018.