Are Swedish University Tuitions Fees Really Free?

University tuition fees are always popular talking points in politics, media, and over family dinner tables: higher education is some kind of right; it’s life-changing for the individual and super-beneficial for society, thus governments ought to pay for them on economic as well as equity grounds (please read with sarcasm). In general, the arguments for entirely government-funded universities is popular way beyond the Bernie Sanders wing of American politics. It’s a heated debate in the UK and Australia, whose universities typically charge students tuition fees, and a no-brainer in most Scandinavian countries, whose universities have long had up-front tuition fees of zero.

Many people in the English-speaking world idolize Scandinavia, always selectively and always for the wrong reasons. One example is the university-aged cohort enviously drooling over Sweden’s generous support for students in higher education and, naturally, its tradition of not charging tuition fees even for top universities. These people are seldom as well informed about what it actually means – or that costs of attending university is probably lower in both England and Australia. Let me show you some vital differences between these three countries, and thereby shedding some much-needed light on the shallow debate over tution fees:

The entire idea with university education is that it pays off – not just socially, but economically – from the individual’s point of view: better jobs, higher lifetime earnings or lower risks of unemployment (there’s some dispute here, and insofar as it ever existed, the wage premium from a university degree has definitely shrunk over the last decades). The bottom line remains: if a university education increases your lifetime earnings and thus acts as an investment that yield individual benefits down the line, then individuals can appropriately and equitably finance that investment with debt. As an individual you have the financial means to pay back your loan with interest; as a lender, you have a market to earn money – neither of which is much different from, say, a small business borrowing money to invest and build-up his business. This is not controversial, and indeed naturally follows from the very common sense principle that those who enjoy the benefits ought to at least contribute towards its costs.

Another general reason for why we wouldn’t want to artificially price a service such as university education at zero is strictly economical; it bumps up demand above what is economically-warranted. University educations are scarce economic goods with all the properties we’re normally concerned about (has an opportunity cost in its use of rivalrous resources, with benefits accruing primarily to the individuals involved in the transaction), the use and distribution of which needs to be subject to the same market-test as every other good. Prices serve a socially-beneficial purpose, and that mechanism applies even in sectors people mistakenly believe to be public or social, access to which forms some kind of special “human right.”

From a political or social-justice point of view, such arguments tend to carry very little weight, which is why the funding-side matters so much. Because of debt-aversion or cultural reasons, lower socioeconomic stratas of societies tend not to go to university as much as progressives want them to – scrapping tuition fees thus seems like a benefit to those sectors of society. When the financing of those fees come out of general taxation however, they can easily turn regressive in their correct economic meaning, disproportionately benefiting those well off rather than the poor and under-privileged they intended to help:

The idea that graduates should make no contribution towards the tertiary education they will significantly benefit from it, while expecting the minimum wage hairdresser in Hull, or waiter in Wokingham to pick up the bill by paying higher taxes (or that their unborn children and grandchildren should have to pay them due to higher borrowing) is highly regressive.

Although not nearly enough people say it, university is not for everyone. The price tag confronts students, who perhaps would go to university to fulfill an expectation rather than for any wider economic or societal benefit, with a cost as well as a benefit of attending university.

Having said that, I suggest that attending university is probably more expensive in your utopian Sweden than in England or Australia. The two models these three countries have set up look very different at first: in Sweden the government pays the tuition and subsidies your studies; in England and Australia you have to take out debt in order to cover tuition fees. A cost is always bigger than no cost – how can I claim the reverse?

With the following provision: Australian and English students don’t have to pay back their debts until they earn above a certain income level (UK: £18,330; Australia: $55,874). That is, those students whose yearly earnings never reach these levels will have their university degree paid for by the government regardless. That means that the Scandinavian and Anglophone models are almost identical: no or low costs accrue for students today, in exchange for higher costs in the future provided you earn enough income. Clearly, paying additional income taxes when earning high incomes but not on low incomes (Sweden) or paying back my student debt to the government only if I earn high incomes rather than low (England, Australia) amounts to the same thing. Changing the label of a financial transfer from the individual to the government from “debt-repayment” to “tax” has very little meaning in reality.

In one way, the Aussie-English system is somewhat more efficient since it internalises costs to only those who benefited from the service rather than blanket taxing everyone above a certain income threshold: it allows high-income earners who did not reach such financial success from going to university to avoid paying the general penalty-tax on high-incomes that Swedish high-earners do.

Let me show the more technical aspect: In England, earning above £18,330 places you at a position in the 54th percentile, higher than the majority of income-earners. Similarly, in Australia, $55,874 places you above 52% of Aussie income-earners. For Sweden, with the highest marginal income taxes in the world, a similar statistics is trickier to estimate since there is no official cut-off point above which you need to repay it. Instead, I have to estimate the line at which you “start paying” the relevant tax. What line is then the correct one? Sweden has something like 14 different steps in its effective marginal tax schedule, ranging from 0% for monthly incomes below 18,900 SEK (~$2,070) to 69.8% for incomes above 660,000 SEK (~$72,350) or even 75% in estimations that include sales taxes of top-marginal taxes:


If we would place the income levels at which Australian and English students start paying back the cost of their university education, they’d both find themselves in the middle range facing a 45.8% effective marginal tax – suggesting that they would have greatly exceeded the income level at which Swedish students pay back their tuition fees. Moreover, the Australian threshold would exchange into 367,092 SEK as of today, for a position in the 81st percentile – that is higher than 81% of Swedish income-earners. The U.K., having a somewhat lower threshold, converts to 217,577 SEK and would place them in the 48th percentile, earning more than 48% of Swedish income-earners – we’re clearly not talking about very poor people here.

The fact that income-earners in Sweden face a much-elevated marginal tax schedule as well as the simplified calculations above do indicate that despite its level of tuition fees at zero, it is more expensive to attend university in Sweden than it is in England or Australia. Since Australia’s pay-back threshold is so high relative to the income distribution of Sweden (81%), it’s conceivably much cheaper for Australian students to attend university than for it is for Swedish students, even though the tuition list prices may differ (the American debate is much exaggerated precisely because so few people pay the universities’ official list prices).

Letting governments via general taxation completely fund universities is a regressive measure that probably hurts the poor more than it helps the rich. The solution to this is not some quota-scholarships-encourage-certain-groups-version but rather to a) increase and reinstate tuition fees where applicable or b) cut government funding to universities, or ideally get government out of the sector entirely.

That’s a progressive policy in respect to universities. Accepting that, however, would be anathema for most people in politics, left and right.

Economists vs. The Public

Economics is the dismal science, as Thomas Carlyle infamously said, reprising John Stuart Mill for defending the abolishment of slavery in the British Empire. But if being a “dismal science” includes respecting individual rights and standing up for early ideas of subjective, revealed, preferences – sign me up! Indeed, British economist Diane Coyle wisely pointed out that we should probably wear the charge as a badge of honor.

Non-economists, quite wrongly, attack economics for considering itself the “Queen of the Social Science”, firing up slurs, insults and contours: Economism, economic imperialism, heartless money-grabbers. Instead, I posit, one of our great contributions to mankind lies in clarity and, quoting Joseph Persky “an acute sensitivity to budget constraints and opportunity costs.”

Now, clarity requires one to be specific. To clearly define the terms of use, and refrain from the vague generality of unmeasurable and undefinable concepts so common among the subjects over whom economics is the queen. When economists do their best to be specific, they sometimes use terms that also have a colloquial meaning, seriously confusing the layman while remaining perfectly clear for those of us who “speak the language”. I realize the irony here, and therefore attempt my best to straighten out some of these things, giving the examples of 1) money and 2) investments.

An age-old way to see this mismatch is measuring the beliefs held by the vast majority of economists and the general public (Browsing the Chicago IGM surveys gives some examples of this). Bryan Caplan illustrates this very well in his 2006 book The Myth of the Rational Voter:

Noneconomists and economists appear to systematically disagree on an array of topics. The SAEE [“Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy”] shows that they do. Economists appear to base their beliefs on logic and evidence. The SAEE rules out the competing theories that economists primarily rationalize their self-interest or political ideology. Economists appear to know more about economics than the public. (p. 83)

Harvard Professor Greg Mankiw lists some well-known positions where the beliefs of economists and laymen diverge significantly (rent control, tariffs, agricultural subsidies and minimum wages). The case I, Mankiw, Caplan and pretty much any economist would make is one of appeal to authority: if people who spent their lives studying something overwelmingly agree on the consequences of a certain position within their area of expertise (tariffs, minimum wage, subsidies etc) and in stark opposition to people who at best read a few newspapers now and again, you may wanna go with the learned folk. Just sayin’.

Caplan even humorously compared the ‘appeal to authority’ of other professions to economists:

In principle, experts could be mistaken instead of the public. But if mathematicians, logicians, or statisticians say the public is wrong, who would dream of “blaming the experts”? Economists get a lot less respect. (p. 53)

Money, Wealth, Income

The average public confusingly uses all of these terms interchangeably. A rich person has ‘money’, and being rich is either a reference to income or to wealth, or sometimes both – sometimes even in the same sentence. Economists, being specialists, should naturally have a more precise and clear meaning attached to these words. For us Income refers to a flow of purchasing power over a certain period (=wage, interest payments), whereas Wealth is a stock of assets or “fixed” purchasing power; my monthly salary is income whereas the ownership of my house is wealth (the confusion here may be attributable to the fact that prices of wealth  shares, house prices etc  can and often do change over short periods of time, and that people who specialize in trading assets can thereby create income for themselves).

‘Money’, which to the average public means either wealth or income, is to the economist simply the metric we use, the medium of exchange, the physical/digital object we pass forth and back in order to clear transactions; representing the unit of account, the thing in which we calculate money (=dollars). That little green-ish piece of paper we instantly think of as ‘money’. To illustrate the difference: As a poor student, I may currently have very little income and even negative wealth, but I still possess money with which I pay my rent and groceries. In the same way, Bill Gates with massive amounts of wealth can lack ‘money’, simply meaning that he would need to stop by the ATM.

Investment

A lot like money, the practice of calling everything an ‘investment’ is annoying to most economists: the misuse drives us nuts! We’re commonly told that some durable consumption good was an investment, simply because I use it often; I’ve had major disagreements friends over the investment or consumption status of a) cars, b) houses, c) clothes, and d) every other object under the sun. Much like ‘money’, ‘investment’ to the general public seem to mean anything that gives you some form of benefit or pleasure. Or it may more narrowly mean buying financial assets (stocks, shares, derivatives…). For economists, it means something much more specific. Investopedia brilliantly explains it: The definition has two components; first, it generates an income (or is hoped to appreciate in value); secondly, it is not consumed today but used to create wealth:

An investment is an asset or item that is purchased with the hope that it will generate income or will appreciate in the future. In an economic sense, an investment is the purchase of goods that are not consumed today but are used in the future to create wealth.

This definition clearly shows why clothes, yoga mats and cars are not investments; they are clearly consumption goods that, although giving us lots of joy and benefits, generates zero income, won’t appreciate and is gradually worn out (i.e. consumed). Almost as clearly, houses (bought to live in) aren’t investments (newsflash a decade after the financial crisis); they generate no income for the occupants (but lots of costs!) and deteriorates over time as they are consumed. The only confusing element here is the appreciation in value, which is an abnormal feature of the last say four decades: the general trend in history has been that housing prices move with price inflation, i.e. don’t lose value other than through deterioration. In fact, Adam Smith said the very same thing about housing as an investment:

A dwelling-house, as such, contributed nothing to the revenue of its inhabitant; and though it is no doubt extremely useful to him, it is as his cloaths and household furniture are useful to him, which however make a part of his expence, and not his revenue. (AS, Wealth of Nations, II.1.12)

Cars are even worse, depreciating significantly the minute you leave the parking lot of the dealership. Where the Investopedia definition above comes up short is for business investments; when my local bakery purchases a new oven, it passes the first criteria (generates incomes, in terms of bread I can sell), but not the second, since it is generally consumed today. Some other tricky example are cases where political interests attempt to capture the persuasive language of economists for their own purposes: that we need to invest in our future, either meaning non-fossil fuel energy production, health care or some form of publicly-funded education. It is much less clear that these are investments, since they seldom generate an income and are more like extremely durable consumption goods (if they do classify on some kind of societal level, they seem like very bad ones).

In summary, economists think of investments as something yielding monetary returns in one way or another. Either directly like interest paid on bonds or deposits (or dividends on stocks) or like companies transforming inputs into revenue-generating output. It is, however, clear that most things the public refer to as investments (cars, clothes, houses) are very far from the economists’ understanding.

Economists and the general public often don’t see eye-to-eye. But improving the communication between the two should hopefully allow them to – indeed, the clarity with which we do so is our claim to fame in the first place.

Revised version of blog post originally published in Nov 2016 on Life of an Econ Student as a reflection on Establishment-General Public Divide.