School is free. Libraries are free. The western world seems to agree that education should not be a privilege of the wealthy. So why then, is higher education not free? Now this question is largely rhetorical, but it acts to highlight my concern over the lack of support for a more heavily subsidized higher education. Don’t get me wrong, the focus that many university missions place on inclusivity is comforting; it often feels however, like all mouth and no trousers. Particularly in an age where institutions could readily make all course materials, lectures, and textbooks, available for free online, it seems that increasing accessibility is more talked about than worked towards.
Of course free education is clearly not an economically viable approach, but why should it be? Money is not part of the equation when we talk of fire departments or mental health centers; we invest in them because it is the right thing to do, not because they are profitable. I believe the same attitude should endure when we discuss higher education. Just imagine for a moment: anyone (with an internet connection, granted) can simply browse online through university websites and pick a degree! From the comfort of your own home, it is entirely possible to receive the highest quality of educational material, follow any penchant or interest, and be in constant contact with professors and experts in the field. University is a choice that everyone, young or old, rich or poor, can make. What a wonderful world.
It is essential to keep such an idealized view of what higher education could be at the forefront of our thinking. We are, after all, charging headlong into the age of technology. Yes, there are myriad problems with implementing this imagined utopia, a thorough review of which is beyond the scope of this blog. One particularly prickly obstacle is that of certification; adjudicating on whether an individual has met all of the requirements pertaining to their degree becomes demonstrably more challenging with free education. These issues will have to be addressed as we move into the era of open access anyway, so I think we should be having the discussion regardless. ‘Classes for the Masses’ (as I have coined it) are achievable, and seem to be high on the agenda for many academic institutions. We must not let greed prevent us from exploring socialized higher education, nor let fear stall us from embracing advances in communication. Let us hope that in this instance fortune does not favor the brave, and instead we can proclaim: Bravo! new world.