Should students have to borrow?

Christopher Martin, University of British Columbia,

Since autumn 2012, higher education institutions in England have been able to charge undergraduate students up to £9,000 a year in tuition fees. Full‐time students are expected to take out loans large enough to cover their tuition fees and living costs for the duration of their studies. They must start repaying these loans if and when their earnings reach £21,000 a year. In this bold and timely pamphlet, Christopher Martin argues that forcing students to borrow is a serious mistake. He contends that higher education is a welfare good on a par with basic schooling and health care. To flourish in liberal democratic societies, citizens must be personally autonomous, and the educational demands of personal autonomy are too heavy to be met by compulsory schooling alone. To lead autonomous lives, adult citizens need ongoing educational support, support that the liberal democratic state has an obligation to provide. Higher education should therefore be a universal entitlement and free at the point of use. The global debate about who should pay for higher education is by no means settled. As England shifted the financial burden from taxpayers to students, Germany moved in the opposite direction: all German universities have offered free tuition since 2014. Christopher Martin's distinctive contribution to the debate is to lay out a principled argument, based on a plausible assessment of the purpose of higher education, for the view that students should not have to pay for their education. His argument is controversial, to be sure, but it represents a serious and considered attempt to set the question of higher education funding on sure normative foundations.


In the United States, the class of 2015 graduated with the largest student loan debt in history, totaling $56 billion – a more than fivefold increase from the 1990s (Aleem, 2015). In the United Kingdom student loans are a relatively new policy. However, UK students stand at the epicentre of a global debate about student debt. Protests have been held on an almost continuous basis since the Coalition Government tripled fees to £9,000 a year in 2012. Almost every news report about UK higher education policy is dogged by the question of student debt, from how to collect defaulted loans to the impact of increased fees on widening participation. As the debate drags on, UK students are quickly borrowing their way to the American milestone. Recent reports from the Student Loans Company put the total outstanding loan balance at £62.2 billion (Kharpal, 2015). An entire generation of liberal democratic citizens in the English-speaking world is now burdened with worrying levels of debt.

Much of the debate to date has understandably focused on the economic consequences of generational student debt. We are, after all, talking about money. However, a purely economic debate on student loans risks becoming a distraction from more fundamental issues facing higher education systems both here and abroad. Loans are undeniably bad for the economic welfare of students. But the economic stress imposed by a system of student loans is a symptom of a model of provision that is broken. Students will remain trapped in this broken model as long as critics and defenders alike take it for granted. We need a system that better reflects the place of higher education in democratic life. This requires rethinking the value of higher education In this pamphlet I develop and defend an account of higher education better suited to liberal democracy. Specifically, I argue that in a liberal democracy higher education has the same value – the same crucial importance – as goods like basic schooling and health care. It follows that higher education should be provided to all, regardless of ability to pay or willingness to borrow.

How we (under)value higher education

We have yet to come up with a model of higher education provision that adequately reflects what higher education should look like in a democracy. That isn’t altogether surprising: pinpointing the value of higher education in a democracy is no easy task. 

While universities and similar institutions have been around for a long time, they have only recently been viewed as part of the fabric of a free and equal society. It was not until the post-WW2 boom that higher education expanded significantly beyond traditional elites, welcoming citizens from different social and economic backgrounds. The moral and political significance of this expansion remains unclear. Does wide access to higher education matter because a degree is a smart economic investment, an opportunity for which everyone should be able to compete on equal terms? Or does it matter because higher education confers benefits to which everyone should be entitled, regardless of their ability to compete?

The former view is currently in the ascendant. It goes something like this: a higher education is a very efficient way to improve your economic lot in life. It’s not essential for living well, but you’ll certainly be more employable and you’re likely to earn more over a lifetime. And we know that employability and earning power help people to flourish. Access to opportunities like this shouldn’t be restricted to the elites of a society. Equality is an important value in a democracy. So we must expand higher education. We must work to make sure that more of the less well-off have a better chance at improving their economic fortunes, should they wish to do so. Those who lack the means to pay up front, for example, should be able to defer payment until they receive the economic gains their degree affords them. Borrow now; pay later. By making higher education more accessible to all, student loans help to create a more just society.

But one can take issue with this line of thinking and argue instead for the latter view: higher education should be available to all because it is necessary for living a good life. Here higher education is understood to be a welfare good in the same class as health care and basic schooling. It is something to which citizens have a social right. 

Unfortunately, many advocates of the view that higher education is a social right fail to provide a justification for it – a clear set of reasons why we should see higher education this way (McCowan, 2012). And a justification is clearly needed. After all, plenty of goods and services make the transition from narrowly to widely accessible without having to be reclassified as rights. Coffee, golf and air travel all come to mind here. We wouldn’t seriously entertain these as welfare goods. Why not let the market take care of the growing demand for higher education? 

To what extent does higher education resemble goods like health care and basic schooling? Welfare goods are described by some political philosophers as ‘morally special’, meaning that they have such a clear and overriding importance in our lives that asking people to pay for them would be unjust (Segal, 2007, p.343). We value the public health care system because health care helps people get back to a normal state of functioning when they get sick (Daniels, 2001). We think that access to this care shouldn’t depend on how much or how little people have in other areas of their lives. We are morally outraged when someone is denied the health care they need, regardless of their income level or educational attainment. No decent physician asks to know a patient’s salary level before admitting them to the emergency room. It is only when people access health care for reasons that go beyond what they need that we expect them to pay, as in the case of non-essential cosmetic surgery. We tend to think, too, that health care has as much payoff for the community as it does for the person seeking care – a point illustrated most strikingly by vaccinations against communicable diseases. Similar things could be said about the way we value and think about basic schooling. 

It is far from clear that higher education falls into this category of ‘moral specialness’. For one thing, it doesn’t seem to meet any singular human need. On the contrary, the expansion of higher education has led to a diversification in the kinds of programme available and the purposes they serve. In addition to traditional academic degrees, various forms of vocational and specialist provision have been made available to students. These different forms of provision respond to the different needs and goals of university entrants.

Diversification is the product of a basic difference between higher education on one hand and health care and basic schooling on the other. Choice plays a far more central role in the allocation of higher education than in the allocation of these other goods. This is important because the idea of choice is strongly associated with the allocation of consumer goods (Elster, 1986; Glennerster, 1991; Lewinshon-Zamir, 1998; Le Grand, 1991, 2011). The association is orthodoxy in higher education policy, with governments seeking to regulate higher education through student-driven commercial markets. The consequence of this is a near-universal assumption that prospective students entering a system of higher education are basically buying a good that they want. And this encourages the thought that higher education is a privilege, not a right. 

Seeing higher education as a consumer choice has a number of implications for how we think about it. First, seeking out higher education is entirely voluntary. As with any consumer choice, the student chooses the good freely and so accepts responsibility for any costs associated with it. (Note that medical treatment doesn’t work this way. While we might go to the doctor or the emergency room under our own power, we don’t really go voluntarily: we are compelled to go because we need treatment. Usually the treatment is something we would not dream of seeking out if we didn’t need it – ask anyone who has had a bone set.) Second, going to university is just one preference among others that one might choose to satisfy. A person could decide against higher education in order to satisfy some stronger preference (such as earning a full-time wage immediately); and while some might question the wisdom of that decision, it wouldn’t generate the same moral concern as someone refusing urgent medical care or dropping out of primary school. Third, different people have different reasons for going to university. For some, higher education is about charting a path to a scholarly life; for others, it’s a gateway to a lucrative profession; for others still, it’s a way to broaden their social, cultural and intellectual horizons. Finally, student choice is primarily self-serving. A consumer good is designed to satisfy a preference held by the consumer. Students choose higher education because it is something they want, or because it will eventually give them access to something they want. If basic schooling is like essential health care, higher education is like cosmetic surgery – an expensive, life-enhancing option for those who desire it strongly enough to be willing to pay.

On this consumer choice model, higher education has few of the features that make health care and basic schooling morally special. The model presents higher education as an attractive commodity in high demand, a private good that can be provided and regulated by a market. The state might have a role in ensuring that the market runs smoothly, but it has no obligation to cover the costs of provision or to help people access it without going into debt. 

In practice, of course, states typically do subsidise (an increasingly smaller proportion of) the cost of going to university. This may seem to contradict my claim that the consumer choice model is in the ascendant. If higher education really worked this way, one might ask, why would states provide any subsidy at all? The answer is that there’s a difference between the ideal of the consumer choice model and the reality. State subsidies are in place to ensure that the higher education market is working optimally. States have an interest making sure the market functions smoothly because of its ‘positive externalities’ – benefits to the community not intended by the consumer, such as lower prevalence of criminal activity, higher economic productivity and higher rates of voter participation. The impact of these externalities is only felt if enough of the population chooses to participate in higher education, so the state has reason to intervene in the market to ensure a sufficiently high rate of participation. Note that this reasoning cedes no ground to the view that higher education is a social right: if enough students were willing to meet the full cost of going to university, state subsidies would no longer be justified.

Higher education and equality of opportunity

Given the difficulty of showing higher education to be a welfare good, an understandable move for those concerned with social justice is to focus on making the consumer choice model as fair as possible. One might here agree that higher education is principally an opportunity for people to improve their economic fortunes and argue that this is all the more reason to ensure fair access to it. 

Some defenders of student fees argue that fees are fair as long as students don’t have to pay up front. On this view, student loans support the fairness of higher education provision because they enable students to attend who otherwise could not afford to do so. Income-contingent loans and deferred payment plans, currently popular in the UK and US, are both ways of doing this. Harry Brighouse argues for a means-tested form of provision whereby the lower an applicant’s parental income the greater the subsidy and the smaller the loan. He argues, quite convincingly, that the wealthy are more likely to risk investing in higher education because they have resources to fall back on if the investment doesn’t pay off; for the poor, with fewer resources to fall back on, the risk of investing is much greater. So policy-makers should reduce the risk for less well-off students (Brighouse, 2004). 

Brighouse’s conclusion is the one we should arrive at if we assume that higher education is a socioeconomic privilege and focus on fair access to it. But this conventional approach to the problem isn’t sufficient, because it badly misjudges the value of higher education in people’s lives. Brighouse suggests as much in an insightful passage at the end of his analysis: 

The student who is enjoying a free higher education is more likely to explore the ‘irrelevant’; more likely to study intellectually serious subjects like economics and philosophy than vocational subjects like business studies; more likely to find herself drawn in directions that help her to flourish as a person. My conjecture is that the key difference is whether they perceive themselves as having to maximize their income soon after college, which large loans pressure them to do. Other things being equal, the experience of higher education will be more rewarding for the student if the student experiences it as costless. (ibid., p.11, emphasis mine) 

I believe that Brighouse is right in his conjecture about the relationship between freedom, knowledge and wellbeing. If we can explain how the experience of a costless higher education contributes to human flourishing, and assess that contribution relative to other goods, we shall be in a position to understand why higher education is properly thought of as ‘morally special’. To be clear, my suggestion is not that we deny the economic benefits of higher education, or denounce economic motivations for going to university. Rather, if we focus more closely on the free pursuit of knowledge and its role in our wellbeing, we may in turn develop a more comprehensive picture of the place of education in a life where economic interests plays an important, but not singular, part. This is the line of thinking I will develop in the remaining sections of this pamphlet.

The role of choice

As noted above, an impediment to thinking of higher education as a welfare good is the central role of choice in its allocation. Whereas goods like health care and basic education are allocated on the basis of need, so that people with similar needs receive similar provision, higher education is highly diversified and students choose the programmes that interest them. Isn’t it in the nature of welfare goods that they respond to need rather than choice? 

One response to this difficulty would be to claim that student choice is part of the problem. Higher education should, in fact, be allocated in the same sort of way as health care and basic education: with reference to what students need. On this view, students should not be choosing the programmes that interest them; they should be assigned to the programmes that are in their interests. 

But this is an unappealing response. Critics counter that choice is an inalienable feature of higher education. As John White argues, the idea that universities can tell students what their interests are has dangerously paternalistic implications: it treats adult learners like children (White, 1997, p.12). 

Children are dependent in a way that requires adults to make decisions for them. The task of basic education is to work out what learning children need and try to bring that learning about. In liberal societies we usually suppose that what children need is education for personal autonomy: they must be prepared for adult lives in which they determine for themselves how to flourish. 

Once children become adults and take responsibility for their own flourishing, it becomes inappropriate to continue making educational choices on their behalf. Adults must be free make their own educational choices, including the choice not to pursue any sort of higher education. And the value of higher education to those who choose it is closely tied up with its having been chosen rather than assigned.

So those who argue that choice is an inalienable feature of higher education are right. Telling mature adults what they need to learn is paternalistic and contrary to liberal democratic respect for autonomy. This does make it harder to argue for higher education as a morally special good. It looks as though society has discharged its educational obligation to citizens as soon as they have been supplied with whatever basic knowledge, understanding and skills they need to lead autonomous lives. The rest of their educational story is theirs alone to write. 

I think, however, that this appearance is deceptive. The basic education provided to citizens during childhood, however good it may be, is not the only kind of educational support they need if they are to lead fully autonomous lives.

Autonomy and stages of life

On the picture we have been considering, children are provided with basic education because it’s something they need, whereas adults are offered higher education because it’s something they want. Childhood is the stage of life at which people are prepared for autonomy; adulthood the stage at which they exercise it. But the reality is more complex than this. Reaching adulthood and coming to the end of compulsory education is certainly a significant transition point in people’s lives, but it does not mark a point at which education is no longer needed. 

Of course, adult educational needs should not be addressed in a paternalistic way. It is clear that we cannot plan educational provision for adults in the way we plan it for children. But this doesn’t mean we have to think of education in the two stages of life as completely separate. It only requires a shift in emphasis, from education as advance preparation for a self-directed life to education as ongoing support for a self-directed life. Educational provision for adults should focus on the relationship between the range of interests pursued by autonomous persons and the place of those interests in living a good life. This opens the door to a number of important questions, including the extent and limits of our freedom to use educational means to develop ourselves, the social, moral and political responsibilities we have with respect to this development, and the role of the state in upholding that freedom and enabling us to discharge those responsibilities. Any adult citizen seeking a good life has a stake in these questions. To say that they can be resolved through a system of market choice glosses them just as badly, and in much the same way, as claiming that questions about the education of children can be resolved by whatever child-rearing practices exist in the family.

We accept that there is a standard of educational support to which every child is entitled regardless of parental background; why should we assume there can be no similar entitlement for adults simply because they make decisions for themselves? 

A closer look at the concept of personal autonomy may be instructive here. Personal autonomy is defined as ‘self-directedness in the conduct of one’s life’ (Raz, 1986; White, 1991, p.93). Why should we want to be selfdirected in this way? One answer is that autonomy is extremely important for our wellbeing given the kind of liberal democratic society we live in. In our kind of society, being autonomous helps us to flourish. In fact, personal autonomy is not just conducive to but necessary for flourishing. Our most basic institutions and social conventions work on the assumption that people lead autonomous lives (White, 1991, p.99). Marriage and choice of occupation, for example, proceed on the expectation that we determine for ourselves who our romantic partners are and the kind of work we agree to do. Equally important is the idea that we must decide for ourselves our place in the community and how, as citizens, we want to take part in a democratic social vision. This assumes that we are able to make reflective and informed decisions in these various spheres – that we can marshal evidence, sift through information, weigh up considerations, and critically assess what we are advised, instructed or expected to do. 

Public institutions in liberal democratic societies ought to support personal autonomy. Higher education institutions are no exception. Universities have a more fundamental role to play in democratic life than the consumer choice model allows. Their role is to continue the autonomy-supporting project that begins in the school system. 

The view that higher education should aim to support the autonomy of adults is a natural corollary of the view that basic education should aim to build the autonomy of children. Autonomous lives are undeniably more demanding than non-autonomous ones. We want to succeed in our jobs. We have families we need to care for. It’s often hard to gather the time, energy and resources needed for the kinds of civic and political engagement democracy requires. We may each want to get involved in society – to work at making life better for everyone, participate in the democratic process and challenge social conventions we think are wrong or unjust – but as a civic culture we seem on the whole more informed, and more interested in being informed, about smartphone technology than social policy. Mass media and our increasingly consumerist way of life can pare down the active interests and motivations of citizens otherwise inclined to lead personally autonomous lives. I do not suggest that wanting to be successful in one’s job, happy with one’s family or equipped with the latest technology is a sure sign that one lacks autonomy; nor do I mean that modern life is inherently corrupting, or that citizens are naturally lazy. But there is a sense in which the architecture of modern life directs our attention away from the exercise and cultivation of autonomy, distracting us from projects we would choose to take up if we had the time and resources to do so. It would be folly to assume that basic education alone can sustain individuals against these larger structural forces. Autonomy has to be supported over a lifetime. 

It is true that imposing education on adults is unjustifiable in a free society. But it would be a mistake to infer from this that education for autonomy must end at the compulsory stage. Respecting the autonomy of adult learners requires only that universities should not educate for autonomy in a paternalistic manner. It would certainly be wrong to demand that higher education students undertake a particular plan of study because we have decided on their behalf that it is what they need. Adults must be able to make their own educational choices, in accordance with their own assessments of what they need and want. But educational choice is not antithetical to education for autonomy: on the contrary, the two are quite compatible.

Supporting personal autonomy

Higher education institutions should continue the work begun in schools by educating for autonomy in the adult stage of life. What might this autonomy support for adults look like? Attending to the place of knowledge and understanding in basic and higher education may shed some light on the question. 

Recall that, at the compulsory level, we must make decisions for children about the knowledge and understanding needed for autonomy. There are some things all children need to know and be able to do. Basic education involves the promotion of general dispositions and competencies. At the post-compulsory level, we, as adults, have to make our own decisions about the particular forms of knowledge and understanding we wish to pursue. We must choose from the educational paths open to us in light of our interests, ambitions and projects. Perhaps there are particular questions that fascinate us and lead us to associated fields of study. We are driven simply by a desire to understand how the world works, or why things are as they are. Perhaps we want to know how to carry out certain complex tasks – how to build or design or make things more efficient. We study in order to acquire practical knowledge. In most cases, our educational choices will be informed by motives of both kinds. Regardless, once our basic education is complete, we assume responsibility for the further cultivation of our capacities and talents. 

The expectation that adults will identify and pursue the knowledge and understanding they need is written into the fabric of social life, from the free choice of occupation to the responsibility we hold for our own character to the modern concept of leisure time. Anyone who wishes to prosper in a liberal democratic society must make important choices with respect to the pursuit of knowledge after their basic education is complete. We simply can’t avoid seeking knowledge and understanding if we are to lead autonomous lives. 

In a democracy, adults should be free to make choices about the acquisition of knowledge and understanding that take into consideration the specific roles they wish to play in society. They should be roughly equal in their freedom to make these choices. And they should be able to make them with reference not only to the economic value of the chosen knowledge, but also to its social significance and its expected contribution to a flourishing life. A higher education system that fails to meet these standards is a system that works against the democratic ideal. 

Let me be clear: the economic benefits of higher education matter. Getting a degree enhances employability, and employability lowers a specific, and very important, barrier to flourishing. By increasing one’s own value in the market one improves one’s prospects of making a decent living. And we all have to make a living. But this isn’t the whole story. Educational choices can lower barriers to wellbeing in ways that have little to do with the economic benefits of employment. Higher education can give students a better knowledge of themselves, contributing to their flourishing by helping them to identify and overcome internal obstacles to living well. It can improve students’ understanding of the society they live in – its vices as well as its virtues – better enabling them to make meaningful contributions to their communities and to the wider polity. Higher education can help students to understand their chosen occupations in wider terms, giving them a sense of what political courage might look like in the context of, say, medicine or financial planning. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it can encourage a degree of experimentation with different vocational, political and philosophical paths. Students may not choose to go very far down most of the avenues placed before them, but the freedom to explore and assess those avenues, to experience them rather than merely speculate about them, is part of what it means to have personal autonomy. These benefits of higher education go far beyond enhanced employability and we ignore them at our peril. The knowledge and understanding people acquire at university make a basic contribution to their autonomy and thus to their flourishing. 

In a liberal democratic society we need educational institutions that educate for autonomy through the adult stage of life. We should think of higher education not as a privilege of the few but as a morally special good to which all are entitled.

Does this open the door to paternalism, to the idea that everyone should be required to spend time at a university for their own good? Not at all. The freedom to make informed choices about whether and when to pursue the various kinds of knowledge and understanding just described is a key feature of personal autonomy. The idea is to ensure that adults have autonomy-supporting educational options available to them, not to impose education on them against their will. 

We might usefully distinguish between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ freedom to take up higher education opportunities. On the consumer choice model, no-one is formally prevented from gaining admission to a university, studying a subject that interests them, and borrowing the money to pay for it. This is what I mean by negative freedom. The problem is that not preventing certain kinds of choice is not the same thing as actively supporting them. A person only has the positive freedom to go to university and study a subject that interests them if that option is genuinely feasible or choosable for them. It isn’t enough to be able to imagine taking up the option, as one might imagine winning the lottery. For higher education to be more than a nice idea, it has to be economically and psychologically within reach; it has to be a choice one can actually make. For many people, studying a subject that interests them at university level is not currently a choosable option because they are forced to think about higher education in purely economic terms. For people to have positive freedom of educational choice, they must be able to value, and be able to afford to value, the acquisition of knowledge and understanding for its contribution to personal autonomy, independently of its impact on employability. The consumer choice model militates strongly against this. 

A higher education system should not be paternalistic, but it should protect the right of students to choose on the basis of a wider set of considerations than economic ones. It should educate for autonomy in ways appropriate to the adult stage of life, by enabling students to acquire the knowledge and understanding they need to live the kind of life they have chosen for themselves.

Freedom and student debt

The role of higher education in supporting the autonomy of adults provides the basis for thinking of it as a welfare good, while acknowledging the centrality of choice. Higher education is a good to which all citizens are entitled as matter of justice because it is required for the support of personal autonomy through the adult stage of life. I think this brings us closer to a model of higher education provision aligned with the social vision of a democracy. I’ll discuss what this means for policy in more detail in the next section. First I want to ask what it tells us about the debt financing of higher education. 

Students should be free to choose the kind of educational provision that will best support their autonomy and well-being. Higher education systems should be designed to ensure that students are not constrained in ways that undermine that freedom. This explains what is unjust about the debt financing of higher education. Making access to higher education conditional on one’s willingness to go into debt erodes the freedom required for such an education to have autonomy-supporting value. 

How so? In order to pay for higher education the borrowing student must balance what they owe in the present against their (hoped for) future ability to pay. But supporting students’ autonomy involves enabling them to make broad, all-things-considered judgments about the knowledge and understanding they wish to pursue, judgments that include but are not limited by considerations of employment and income. The autonomous student should be able to choose a course of study because he wants to dig deeper into a discipline, or because she wants to develop skills in a particular art or craft, or because he wants to learn more about a public or political problem that affects people he cares about. The introduction of debt makes it harder for students to give weight to considerations of these kinds. In a debt-financed model students are free to choose in theory, but in practice their choices are constrained by the need to prioritise future earnings and employment. A student may have good reasons for digging into a discipline, developing a skill or learning about a political problem, but be unable to act on those reasons because doing so would risk too much harm to their economic wellbeing. 

The debt financing of higher education compels students to pursue their wellbeing in narrow manner. They risk significant hardship if they exercise their autonomy in a widely reflective way. Compare the constrained choice of the student who borrows with the unconstrained choice of the student who does not. Where choice is unconstrained, a student is free to select a course of study that is unlikely to yield much in the way of financial return, without being saddled with a debt she is unable to pay off. Of course, she will have other financial obligations, so her choice still exposes her to greater economic risk than she would face if she chose differently; but here the risk is a factor in her all-thingsconsidered judgment, not a constraint that inhibits her from considering all things in the first place. 

For example, suppose higher education is free at the point of use and I choose to study creative writing at university with a view to becoming a novelist. I have no realistic expectation of making much money from my novels, but I don’t mind that because a high income is not part of my conception of the good. If it were, my interest in earning a high income would override my desire to write novels. Of course, some minimal degree of financial security is necessary and so I’ll need to plan accordingly. I’ll probably have to pick up casual employment after graduation as a means of supporting my long-term goal – publishing my creative work. It will be up to me to decide how much casual work I need to take on to maintain an acceptable level of material comfort. While it is unfortunate that my personal goals are not likely to be to live modestly, I can try to contribute to society in these ways despite their carrying little financial reward.
But now suppose higher education is debt-financed and I must decide whether a creative writing degree is a good investment. I want to be a novelist but I know that I must go into debt to acquire the education I need. The prospect of this debt, of which I may never be free if I follow my preferred career path, acts as a significant constraint on my freedom of choice. As a borrower I must always be mindful of my debt obligation, which drastically alters my appraisal of the options open to me. If I try to pursue my conception of the good I may fail to meet my debt obligation, and the consequences of this failure (accumulating interest, higher loan repayments, a lower credit rating, etc.) will further undermine my ability to pursue than conception. The life of a novelist is no longer a serious option for me: it is a luxury I cannot afford.

The hardship imposed by student loans is of a different character from those imposed by our widely reflective choices about what kind of life to live. Autonomous choosers have a degree of control over the latter hardships: they recognise that different choices bring different mixes of costs and benefits and they accept responsibility for the mix they choose. But borrowing students incur a hardship that stretches across all their choices and has severe consequences for their flourishing. Debt profoundly changes the choice situation, reducing students’ educational options by forcing them to choose on the basis of economic considerations. 

Of course, under the consumer choice model of provision, it is not all students whose choices are constrained in this way. Higher education remains autonomy-supporting for those wealthy enough not to have to borrow. The rich can still choose to be novelists because the choice doesn’t involve taking on a debt they cannot repay. Debt-financing makes freedom of educational choice a luxury for those who can afford it and a risky proposition for those who can’t. Alex Gourevitch describes the different situations of the indebted and the debt-free student as follows: 

… the indebted student knows he will face a unique constraint [on his freedom]. He will have to pay back his loans. Knowing that, even if he is no more risk-averse than his fellow student, he is much more likely to make a conservative choice about his educational and subsequent professional choices. He will be guided toward choosing degrees and career paths that promise better earning potential. To pursue his education with the same financially rewarding, it is not unjust: after all, I’m doing what I want with my life. In this scenario I am able to acquire the knowledge and understanding I need for the kind of life I have chosen. And I am able to do so without taking on burdens beyond those I am willing to accept as part of that life. Moreover, while I may never be a higher rate taxpayer, it would be a mistake to suppose that the path I have chosen is somehow selfish or insular. As an aspiring writer I see creative work as having value for the larger community. I want my fiction to encourage readers to reconsider some basic assumptions about society; I care about the novel as a literary form and I want to make a contribution to that tradition. Because I am debt free and willing intellectual freedom and experimental attitude as the other student would require the indebted student to be much less riskaverse than his colleagues. (Gourevitch, 2012, p.144)

Student loans thus introduce a profound inequality in terms of citizens’ ability to lead a good life by requiring less well-off students to give much greater weight to prospective income than their well-off counterparts. 

There is another negative implication of debt financing. Where higher education is paid for through general taxation, the individuals who go to university acquire an obligation to give something back to the society that has supported them. They become conscious of belonging to a community that acknowledges and strives to meet their educational needs. Society supports their autonomy, so they become inclined to exercise their autonomy in ways that contribute to society. Debt financing, however, dramatically changes both the scope of the obligation students feel and their relationship to society. When citizens must make demands on their own future earnings in order to access basic social goods (Gourevitch, 2012, p.135), they rightly see their obligation as extending no further than earning enough to pay back the lender. Further, the debt cannot be paid off in the currency of civic engagement or social contributions that help lower barriers to wellbeing for others in the democratic community. It can be paid off only in cash. In turn, the democratic community has no morally legitimate claim on citizens to share their developed talents in the service of a fairer, freer or more inclusive society. The community played no role in supporting the development of these talents, so why should it hope to benefit from their exercise? Debt-financing in a sense liberates students from the social obligations they might otherwise feel. While empirical findings on the effects of debt on student choice are limited to date, recent research suggests that debt, especially for the less well-off, makes students less likely to choose jobs that serve the public good (Rothstein and Rouse, 2011). The debt financing of higher education shifts citizens away from a democratic social vision.

A democratic model of higher education provision 

In a democracy, higher education should be a social right, not a luxury for which students must pay. For this reason the current system of student loans should be abolished. It should be replaced by a fully state-funded system in which every citizen is guaranteed some form of post-compulsory education. Such a system is essential if we want to make sure that every citizen has a fair shot at a personally autonomous life. 

I am not proposing that people’s access to post-compulsory education should be unlimited. The comparison with other morally special goods is instructive here. We don’t want hospital stays to go on forever: we want patients to get better and go back out into the world. Similarly, supporting the autonomy of citizens is not the same as sheltering them indefinitely from the pressures of life. Higher education provision should be goal-directed and programmed with clear timespans and endpoints. It should equip students to embrace their responsibilities as active members of society. 

But nor am I proposing that citizens should receive only a one-time allocation of higher education at the end of compulsory schooling. Personal autonomy needs to be supported over a lifetime: individuals need different kinds of support at different points in their lives. This can be accommodated in various ways. One possibility is a sabbatical model, whereby people are entitled to periods of study after a set number of years of consistent employment. A citizen who moves directly into employment after school, whether through preference or need, can take time out later to develop new interests or capacities and forge new paths.

One of the major objections to the public funding of higher education is that a majority in society has to pay for a minority to attend while all the benefits of attendance flow to the minority. That seems unfair. By allocating higher education to every citizen, a democratic model of provision does not ask the majority to fund the minority. Everyone can receive the individual benefits of attendance, if they want them. Moreover, we can anticipate that, as more and more people take up the option of post-compulsory education, society as a whole will benefit, in much the same way that society as a whole benefits from free health care and basic education. A democratic model of provision makes funding through general taxation more reasonable because, as with other welfare goods, everyone benefits. 

How might the system work? I suggest an initial allocation to every citizen as they leave compulsory schooling, followed by additional allocations to citizens with a consistent record of contribution to society – where the kinds of contributions recognised would be much wider than economic. Citizens would be rewarded for their autonomous pursuit of worthwhile goals of all kinds, rather than discouraged from pursuing all but the most remunerative ones. An allocation model along these lines would better accommodate people’s changing priorities and concerns over the course of their adult lives, allowing them to draw on educational support as and when they need it instead of trying to cram enough knowledge and understanding for a lifetime into a three year degree programme. 

My claim that higher education is an essential form of support for personal autonomy is not to be confused with the claim that people without a higher education cannot be autonomous. Plainly, some people manage to lead self-directed lives without going to university. My point is that living autonomously is much harder for these people: their autonomy is not supported by the state in the way it should be. Consider once again health care. We think health is necessary for a good life, so health care is needed to support citizens in their pursuit of a good life. Because some citizens are lucky enough never to be afflicted with a serious illness, it is possible to flourish without health care; but the absence of health care would make flourishing very difficult indeed for large numbers of people. Post-compulsory education has the same kind of importance. Citizens who are denied educational support can lead autonomous lives, but they need a lot more luck, and have to expend a lot more effort, to maintain their autonomy.

Is the change required by my proposal too radical to the feasible? I see no reason why free higher education for all has to be rolled out all at once. It could be introduced piecemeal, in a manner consistent with justice and fairness. Ideally, nobody should have to pay or borrow to go to university; but in the first instance the state could offer free provision to the least well-off, with a view to expanding it to everyone over time. The least well-off are, of course, those who are most likely to be discouraged from applying to university by the prospect of debt, and who are likely to gain most from autonomy-supporting educational opportunities.


Should students have to borrow? They should not, because borrowing both unduly constrains people’s educational choices and deters them from making educational choices at all. I’ve offered an explanation of why constraining and deterring educational choice is wrong. In our kind of society personal autonomy is necessary for living a good life and people need access to autonomy supporting education beyond the end of compulsory schooling. Citizens must be able to reflect on the knowledge and understanding they need to live well and choose their post-compulsory educational paths accordingly. Debt-financed higher education puts an unreasonable burden on citizens, restricting the kinds of life to which they can aspire and the kinds of knowledge and understanding they can pursue. Educational choice is not free when it is constrained by the obligation to repay student loans. It doesn’t have to be this way. A just higher education system is one that fully supports the autonomy of students. This can only be achieved by making higher education free, ensuring that citizens from all backgrounds can make self-directed decisions about what and when to study in light of the lives they wish to lead and the contributions to society they wish to make.


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