President Chen Shui-bian's
(陳水扁) statements about college tuition have raised a political storm. Not only parents and students have opinions on the matter. Social activists have launched protests and the opposition political parties are seizing the opportunity to attack Chen.
The reasons the tuition issue has resulted in popular discontent are as follows: First, Taiwan's economy is in a slump, and the rich-poor gap is growing. Next, the government's financial difficulties are increasingly dire, leaving no option but to demand that public universities meet a portion of their financial needs themselves. Meanwhile, private universities have proliferated in recent years, and the government subsidies they can obtain are ever more limited. Raising tuition has become a measure to maintain the schools.
Higher education has an economic aspect. In order to provide quality educational services, capital investment is necessary, and these costs are reflected in tuition fees. This can be seen in the US Ivy League schools, which provide first-rate resources and charge their students high rates of tuition.
Higher education also has a social function. Although the social elite cultivated by the higher-education system enjoy advantages in the development of their careers and thus are themselves the system's primary beneficiaries, they are also a force pushing for progress in society. The higher the average standard of education, the higher the overall refinement of the society.
Moreover, education also represents an important opportunity for those of lower-class backgrounds to move upward. Considering these social functions, the government must play a role supporting higher education. Resources must be provided to subsidize both public and private colleges and to guarantee that those of lower-class backgrounds have a chance to receive higher education.
The crux of the problem now is the following: The government is broke, so how can schools continue to operate if they don't raise tuition prices? At the same time, the people are broke too, so how can the next generation go to college if they don't have scholarships and loans?
A relatively radical idea is to conduct an all-around review of the government's budget and allocate more resources to education. This is a major project. Enormous personnel expenses can't be reduced overnight, and military expenses are bound up with complex domestic and international relations. In addition, there are a plethora of social welfare policies each taking a share of government resources.
If government expenditures can't be adjusted, then taxes must be raised or debt incurred. There is nothing a popularly elected government fears doing more than raising taxes. As for incurring debt, although that doesn't necessarily mean bringing disaster on future generations, interest does have to be paid and the principal returned. Moreover, the implicit meaning of borrowing money is that the government represents the people in borrowing money from and paying interest to the wealthy.
Perhaps we can imagine a new system along the lines of the National Annuity or National Health Insurance systems in which the government sets up a compulsory education fund. On the one hand it would force people to save money by requiring them to invest at regular intervals in the next generation's education.