Wed, Jul 23, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Tuition row needs a fair solution to benefit all

By Lu Chia-feng 呂家鋒

Tuition hikes by universities have become a news topic recently. University students naturally expect better services at the lowest price possible. However, faced with the current tuition policy, one inevitably doubts its fairness and efficiency.

Tuition fees can be viewed as a reflection of the cost of education. However, in Taiwan's current education system, tuition fees do not necessarily reflect costs, because the government subsidizes them with a definite budget every year. These subsidies primarily come from the taxpayer's pocket. There would be nothing wrong with such a transfer of wealth if the entire citizenry could share the services provided by the government. However, would it be fair if the service is limited to a little more than 30 percent of students of the same age, while the parents of students studying at public and private universities pay the same tax rates?

A close examination of the composition of students at public and private universities shows that test scores are directly related to family background. Larger numbers of students from well-off families gain admission into public universities than students from slightly worse-off families. Such an outcome seems to be different from our daily experience: one has to pay higher prices for better-quality products.

Meanwhile, we should give more help to people from families limited by their economic status. Even though our low-tuition policy is meant to promote social mobility, it is having exactly the opposite effect. In contrast, the government's approach of using tax revenues to give massive subsidies to public universities seems like using the state machine to rob from the poor and give to the rich.

Perhaps today's low-tuition policy was not designed to solve the social mobility problem at all. Education is a kind of investment. Investment relies on the provision of adequate information. The pricing mechanism should be allowed to reflect the cost of university education. The universities should be given the autonomy to determine their tuition policies. For its part, the government can focus on the establishment of financial support mechanisms for students.

The government should set up interest-free student loan funds, for example, or follow the example of Australia's education system, in which the government pays for the student's tuition fees, which are to be repaid by deducting a "graduate tax" from salaries.

Based on the "users pay" concept, this is practically fair. Authorize universities to estimate the proportion of tuition fees in the cost of university education. Universities can take responsibility for their operations, instead of relying on subsidies from the Ministry of Education. The operation will then become efficient and competitive, and each university will cultivate its own unique features. At the same time, the fully reflected costs of education can also provide students with a larger variety of considerations as they weigh their best choice for investment.

Politicians love to be infinitely inclusive and take on every social task, but their overall efficiency and planning must bear public criticism. There is an over-dependence on political manipulation of public issues.

As the presidential election draws closer, more public issues will come under the limelight. If both the ruling and opposition parties really believe that higher education is crucial for the country's development, then I hope both sides will present their views on the value of education as well as the entailing blueprints -- instead of spending energy on meaningless exchanges. As for those commentators and political figures who have always been everything-under-the-sun inclusive, they should stop taking advantage of social activist groups and being self-righteous while failing to provide feasible strategies.

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