Make education free of charge?

Political parties have been busy floating ideas for reducing the financial burden of parents in the education of their children, including making parts or all of education free of charge. Some of the proposals may be intended to woo voters in the next general election, which must be held by the end of 2018. But in trying to address the issue, the unavoidable question will be how to secure the funds to pay for the cost of education. Education plays a crucial role in the healthy development of society by nurturing children. Greater efforts need to be made so that qualified children are not deprived of education opportunities for economic reasons. Still, the proposals by the parties should be closely examined to see if they address the problem of cost in a rational manner.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party calls for cutting parents’ financial burden in pre-school and university education. The opposition Democratic Party calls for free pre-school and high school education and drastically reducing the burden of university education. Nippon Ishin no Kai is proposing a constitutional amendment to make all education through universities free of charge.

These proposals are made just as many households struggle with the heavy cost of education of children even as their disposable income does not steadily rise. According to a 2009 education ministry report, which calculated the average cost of educating a child from kindergarten through university, parents paid ¥8.4 million if the child attended public schools through high school and a national university, and ¥11.6 million if the child attended a private kindergarten and a private university. The cost includes paying for school lunches and education-related activities outside school.

The education ministry estimates that making education from preschool to university education — including public and private schools — free would cost ¥4.1 trillion a year. It is indeed a vast sum, and how to secure the necessary funds is no small question. However, ideas put forward by the parties in this regard do not seem solid enough. Both the LDP and the DP propose issuing new government bonds to cover the expenses, taking advantage of the prevailing low interest rates that keep down the cost of such debt. But the balance of government debt is already twice the nation’s gross domestic product. Issuing more debt will end up passing on the burden to future generations, whom the parties are supposedly trying to support through reducing the cost of education.

After its new bonds idea faced criticism, the LDP appears to be shifting to a plan to institute social insurance to cover the cost of making preschool education free. The plan envisages ultimately raising ¥1.7 trillion a year by increasing pension premiums paid by corporate employees and their employers as well as by self-employed workers to help cover the cost of preschool education. Under this plan, however, the burden will fall on the entire working population, including households that have no children or whose children have exceeded the preschool age.

A better way for society as a whole to cover the cost of education for children and avoid passing on the burden to future generations would be to use taxpayer funds. If public support needs to be expanded to reduce the household burden of education, either government expenses in other areas should be cut or taxes hiked to make room for greater spending on education. The various parties’ proposals on “free education” must be scrutinized to see if they offer a reasonable solution to the funding problem.

Attempts to significantly increase education subsidies may create new problems. Universities’ heavy reliance on government funds to cover at least part of their tuition may create more room for government intervention in academics. The opening of more than 120 private universities since 2000 amid the declining youth population due to the low fertility rate has led more than 40 percent of private universities nationwide to operate without a full student body and suffer financial difficulties as a result.

Making higher education free without setting academic requirements may result in students going to university who don’t possess a strong motivation to study. Meanwhile, universities may be tempted to fill their quotas by accepting students irrespective of their academic qualifications. Such developments could lead to a decline in the academic level of universities as a whole. The parties should also discuss how to avert these possible negative side effects of making higher education free of charge.