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.

The Indo-Pacific narrative, US insularity, and China’s increasing influence

Over the past year, there has been a growing interest with regard to the vision of a Free and Fair ‘Indo-Pacific’. While this term has been used in recent years by policy makers from the US and Australia and has been pushed forward by a number of strategic analysts, a number of developments since last year have resulted in this narrative gaining some sort of traction.

US President Donald Trump, during his visit to South East Asia and East Asia in November 2017, used this term on more than one occasion, much to the discomfort of China (which prefers ‘Asia-Pacific’). On the eve of his visit to India last year, Former Secretary of State Richard Tillerson, while speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS, Washington DC), explicitly mentioned a larger role for India in the Indo-Pacific, and the need for India and US to work jointly. Said Tillerson:

The world’s center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. and India, with our shared goals of peace, security, freedom of navigation, and a free and open architecture, must serve as the Eastern and Western beacons of the Indo-Pacific, as the port and starboard lights between which the region can reach its greatest and best potential.

In November 2017, the Quad grouping (Australia, US, India, and Japan) met on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit pitching not just for a rules based order, but also in favour of enhancing connectivity. Commenting on the meeting, an official statement from the US Department of State had said that the discussions were important and members of the Quad were “committed to deepening cooperation, which rests on a foundation of shared democratic values and principles.”

Earlier, too, the four countries had coalesced together, but as a consequence of Chinese pressure, the grouping could not last.

There have also been discussions of coming up with connectivity projects. This was discussed during Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s meeting with Donald Trump in February 2018, and between representatives of Japan, the US, and India in April 2018 when the three sides met in New Delhi, committing themselves to furthering connectivity between the countries.

China Factor

While members of the Quad have continuously denied that the Indo-Pacific concept is specifically targeted at China, it would be naïve to believe this assertion. In fact, during a visit to Australia, French President Emmanuel Macron, who is trying to position himself as one of the frontline protagonists of liberalism in the Western world, spoke about the need for India, Australia, and France to work together in order to ensure a rules-based order. Commenting on the need for India, France and Australia to jointly work for a rules based order, and checking hegemony (alluding to China), the French President stated:

What’s important is to preserve rules-based development in the region… and to preserve necessary balances in the region….It’s important with this new context not to have any hegemony.

Evolving relationship between China-India and China-Japan

While it is good to talk about a rules-based order, and a Free and Fair Indo-Pacific, it is important for members to do a rational appraisal of ensuring that the Indo-Pacific narrative remains relevant, especially in the context of two important events. First, the reset taking place between India-China, and second, the thaw between Japan-China.

This has already resulted in some very interesting developments.

First, Australia was kept out of the Malabar exercises last June (Japan, US, and India participated). Australia is a member of the Quad alliance and has been one of the vocal protagonists of the Free and Fair Indo-Pacific narrative. Canberra has also expressed vocally the need for a greater role for India in the Indo-Pacific. Australia has on more than one occasion expressed its desire to participate in the Malabar Exercises.

Many argue that the decision to exclude Australia from the exercises is a consequence of the significant shift taking place in India-China relations, though India has been dismissive of this argument.

Second, Japan has expressed its openness to participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as long as international norms are met. During meetings between the Chinese and Japanese Foreign Ministers in April 2018, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, said such a possibility was discussed. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is seeking to improve ties with China, recently reiterated the potential of the Belt and Road Initiative in giving a boost to the regional economy.

It would be pertinent to point out that a number of Japanese companies are already participating in countries which are part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Interestingly, the Japanese-led Asian Development Bank (ADB), which has been funding many projects (spearheaded by Japan) projected to be components of the Indo-Pacific strategy, has even gone to the extent of stating that it does not perceive the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as a threat. Commenting on the possibility of cooperation between ADB and AIIB, the President of ADB, Takehiko Nakao, stated that “AIIB, it’s not the kind of threat to us. We can cooperate with AIIB because we need larger investment in Asia and we can collaborate.”

Where does the Indo-Pacific move from here?

In terms of strategic issues, especially ensuring that China is not an unfettered influence in the region, the narrative is relevant. The Chinese approach towards Indo-Pacific and Quad as being mere froth is an exaggeration. Addressing a press conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress, China’s Foreign Minister, Mr. Wang, had stated that there was “no shortage of headline grabbing ideas” but they were “like the foam on the sea” that “gets attention but will soon dissipate.”

Similarly, in terms of promoting democratic values it certainly makes sense. The real problem is in terms of connectivity projects (beyond India-Japan, none of the members of the Quad have elaborated a coherent vision for connectivity). The US has spoken about an Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, but given the Trump Administration’s approach, it remains to be seen to what extent this can be taken further. While Australia has been steadfast in its opposition to China’s growing economic clout, it has its limitations, especially in terms of funding any concrete connectivity projects. Possible regions where Australia could play a key role should be identified.

Conclusion

It is fine to speak in terms of certain common values, but to assume that China can be the only glue is a bit of a stretch, especially given the fact that it has strong economic ties with key countries pushing ahead the Indo-Pacific vision. It is also important for the Indo-Pacific to come up with a cohesive connectivity plan. Currently, the narrative seems to be driven excessively by strong bilateral relationships, and the individual vision of leaders.

Recent developments in the context of Indo-Pacific

At a time when a massive churn is taking place in the Donald Trump Administration (HR Mcmaster was replaced as head of the NSA by John Bolton, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was replaced with the more hawkish Mike Pompeo), Alex Wong, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, gave a briefing with regard to the US vision for ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy, on April 3, 2018 (a day before a trilateral dialogue took place between senior officials from India, Japan and US). Wong outlined the contours of the strategy, and spoke not just about the strategic vision, but also the economic vision of the US, with regard to the Indo-Pacific.

A backgrounder to the Indo-Pacific, Quad, and the China Factor

For a long time, the US referred to the region as ‘Asia-Pacific’ (which China prefers), but the current Trump Administration has been using the term ‘Indo-Pacific’. During his visit to East Asia and South East Asia, in November 2017, the US President had used the term more than once (much to the discomfort of China) giving a brief overview of what he meant by a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’. While speaking to a business delegation at Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Trump spoke about ‘rule of law’ and playing by the rules. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had referred to the Indo-Pacific and the Quad Alliance (consisting of US, India, Japan, and Australia) in an address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (a Washington think tank)  in October 2017, a week before his India visit.

In order to give a further thrust to the Quad, representatives of all four countries met on the eve of East Asia Summit in Manila. A statement of the Indian Foreign Ministry said: Continue reading

Quad: The way ahead and the key challenges

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) consisting of India, Australia, Japan, and the US has been pitching in favor of a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’ ever since the first meeting between representatives of member states in November 2017.

Shinzo Abe, the current Prime Minister of Japan, actually proposed this arrangement about a decade ago. Diplomatic engagement began, and joint military exercises were even held, but a change in guard in Australia, as well as Chinese complaints to member states, resulted in the end of the arrangement. Given the increasing focus on the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region and the strengthening of strategic ties between all four countries, reticence was finally shed and representatives of the four countries met in November 2017, on the eve of the East Asia Summit in Manila. The main aim of the alliance, thus in other ways, has been to check China’s assertiveness, especially in the South China Sea, and democracy has been one of the key binding factors between the Quad. The U.S. State Department, after the meeting in November 2017, issued a statement that the United States is “committed to deepening cooperation, which rests on a foundation of shared democratic values and principles.”

More recently, the joint statement issued after the meeting between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in February 2018, reiterated the point about a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Said the joint statement between both countries: Continue reading

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  2. Competing to Be Leaderless: Food Sharing and Magnanimity Among Martu Aborigines (pdf)
  3. In Pursuit of Mobile Prey: Martu Hunting Strategies and Archaeofaunal Interpretation (pdf)
  4. Signaling Theory, Strategic Interaction, and Symbolic Capital (pdf)
  5. Rethinking Rights (and Freedom): A Series (be sure to scroll through the ‘comments’)
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Cold meetings at G-20

Hey gang, what’s up? World leaders meeting came to it’s logical end, so we can discuss that event. Seems that everything was as planned. Ukraine, sanctions, near East, China and koalas… And political rudeness. I know that Russian president isn’t in the stream of world love now, but rudeness is awkward – anyway. But we can’t decline that G-20 meeting was under his shadow. Just check your newspapers: Putin, Putin, rudeness, Putin and Obama, Putin and Merkel, Putin left G-20 before the end of the meeting, bla-bla-bla.

I have a couple of questions to all of you:

  1. What do you think about G-20 meeting? What can change in world after that?
  2. Do you think that political rudeness caused by lack of political will against strong Putin’s charisma and his ability to do as he want?

Welcome to the comments!

Around the Web

  1. Arms in the Several States. This is a great post by a law professor at Fordham (Nicholas Johnson) on the legal history behind the struggle of black Americans to arm themselves in the face of State oppression.
  2. World War I and Australia
  3. Held up in customs: Life in China gave Brittany Griner more than she bargained for. This is an excellent piece on the life of a female (former) college basketball star living in China.
  4. Putin’s Cold New World. This is a piece in Dissent magazine by a Polish Left-wing sociologist who deplores what he thinks of as inadequate protection from the United States. Interesting to read in tandem with the knowledge of factions and rent-seeking that is often addressed here at NOL.
  5. The House sues Obama: Political theatre, political pain. A penetrating insight from Will Wilkinson into the House’s decision to sue the Obama administration. The best account I’ve read of the drama so far.