Selling education

  • “Universities have become more about building brand names rather than developing the quality of the ideas themselves”, says Carlos Argueta on the right. Annie Blakesee on the left. Photo: Aleksi Malinen

Tuition fees are on the increase and universities are busy branding themselves. 
Are degrees being sold as commodities?

There can be no doubt that the financial cost of attending University and higher education institutions around the globe is on the increase. While this is of no immediate concern for beneficiaries of the Scandinavian higher education system, for many of the International students in Turku the amount of tuition they have to pay at their home University is of very real concern.

Back in September 2011, while I was still studying for my A-Levels (UK qualifications for University), the British government decided raise the upper limit higher education institutions could charge from £3,000 to £9,000 per academic year. This was set to be implemented the year I began my degree. At the time it was the cause of a major upheaval – Significant protests and political debates.

While that was over 3 years ago now, and tensions on the topic have been reduced to a simmer, it still remains as one of the most relevant discussions of this generation.

Although the situation is not as bad as the UK, it appears that the rest of Europe is not much better off.

“In Italy fees are due to a weak education system,” says Francesca Trevosani, a Law student at the University of Turku. “Resources and funds are spent in a bad way. Fees increase almost every year. For example, fees are 30 euros more than the last year.”

Åbo Akademi student, Javier Fernández, vocalised a similar problem he experienced when studying in Spain. “The problem with my country's higher education fees is that when there’s a big crisis like now that fees are higher than before… and many people now cannot pay it or is having economic troubles to pay it.”

Nevertheless, a handful of European countries appear to have bucked the trend. Here in Finland, for example, as well as Sweden, Germany, Austria and Greece charge no tuition fees to students at home or within the EU.

“Higher education is free in Greece,” said psychology student Mitrou Vasiliki. “It should be free for everyone and most of our universities are public. I agree with that.”

Yet for countries outside the EU, some students are having to pay their home University while studying here - The USA being the biggest culprit.  According to the University of Turku’s International Officer, Annukka Väre, we have had a significantly increased intake in the amount of students from the USA this semester.[1]

While the interest in studying in Finland is on the increase, their fees remain consistently high. “Unfortunately, I am doing bilateral exchange so I am still paying $25,000 to stay here,” explains third year biology/ ecology major, Julia Harvron. “My friend at my university comes from another state and she pays $45,000 every year.”

Cookie cutter syndrome

The student debt in the US is currently running at an all-time high. With over $1.2 trillion worth of student loans still left to pay, it is estimated to be higher than the total amount of student debt in the world combined.[2]

The effect of this is high. Amongst many other issues, students end up studying for subjects they think they ought be doing rather than ones they actually desire.

“If finances were not a consideration at all,” said Education Masters student Annie Blakesee. “I would have studied in an International Educational Policy masters program at a prestigious university I was accepted to in the States, and then done some sort of independent study in Finland after my master’s degree. But, since money doesn’t grow on trees and I would have been 30,000+ USD in debt after 1 year of study.”

In the UK there has also been an increase in more commercially desirable degrees such as computer science and maths, with a decrease in languages and literature.[3]

“It’s like selling education,” Carlos Argueta, the exchange student from El Salvador summarised, “if education even means the same thing anymore.” The School of Economics student continued, “Universities have become more about building brand names rather than developing the quality of the ideas themselves. Universities used to be about students being encouraged to add to the knowledge the institutions already had. Now they are just selling people recycled ideas without encouraging them to do anything innovative or new.”

It is certainly fair to say that while tuition fees are on the increase, so are the amount of people attending Universities with an agenda: To get everything they need for a good career and leave with as little debt as possible. This leads to institutions providing a cookie cutter education in which they package everything necessary for a career is as shorter span as possible so students can go straight into the workplace; thus making it a commodity.

If highly capitalist societies like the USA and the UK continue to implement this kind of system they we could risk losing what the term ‘education’ really means, and therefore stunt the potential for further research in less commercial subjects like languages, literature, and the arts.

Rosamund O’Donnell