Politics vs. Reality in Education

In one of my essays on LewRockwell.com this year, I discussed the fact that the Swedish government finances foreigners’ academic degrees. This is not to say that the government lets foreigners benefit from the tuition-less, i.e., taxpayer-financed, monopolized state university education. The student financing schemes available to Swedish citizens, which consists of a grant and a very beneficential “student loan,” is also available to all foreigners. There is no limit to what non-Swedish students get from Swedish taxpayers.

Some try to raise a discussion on this through advocating the instating of tuitions for students who are not Swedish citizens (and, since Sweden is a member of the E.U., citizens of other E.U. countries), but it seems the political establishment isn’t interested in this issue.

The reason there is no discussion, as I argue in my essay, is the fact that people advocating the high tax welfare state do not want to even discuss this matter. The main underlying reason for this is that if a discussion on tuitions for foreigners emerges, the rather ignorant “no one can afford to pay for the great Swedish education” goes down the drain. If foreigners are allowed, well: required, to pay for their education at Swedish universities quite a few things will become apparent:

  1. Very few will choose to attend Swedish universities to get a degree (they are only there because it is “free”), which will prove to the public Swedish university education isn’t the best in the world;
  2. Some will, no doubt, attend Swedish universities (for whatever reason) and thus obviously be able to afford 1) paying tuion and 2) living expenses. This will prove the fact that education can be paid for privately, and possibly that ordinary people (not only the filthily rich) can afford it.

These two points show very clearly that the Swedish state system of education is fundamentally based in two “welfarist legends”: that the domestic education system is the best in the world, and that such great education is too costly for people to pay themselves (and thus it needs to be “collectively” financed through levying taxes).

It is easy to understand the underlying reasons for these myths. If Swedish education isn’t the best in the world, i.e., if people from all corners of the earth didn’t choose to attend Swedish universities rather than American or British, there is no reason to accept the fact that it is extremely expensive. Also, if it isn’t a world class educational system there is no reason to prohibit private universities (except for the very few, very old private institutions like the Stockholm School of Economics, which is, by the way, dependent on government subsidies), since the public good universities obviously aren’t better than everything else.

The fact that Swedish universities aren’t the best in the world also means paying tuition to cover the real costs of running the universities would make education mediocre yet expensive. Thousands of students would simply choose to go to better universities abroad, while other would-be students would choose not to get an education at all. This would in turn put an end to the Swedish government’s plan to make everybody equal through supplying everybody with a university degree.

The economics of reality would thus call the great Swedish bluff and reality would then barge in havocing the glorious illusion of the superior Swedish way of doing things. Seeing it this way makes it rather “rational” for the political pushers and pullers to not want to discuss tuition for foreigners. It is, from their point of view, much better to let Swedish taxpayers finance everybody’s education than facing reality and risk smiting the political construction earning them a living.

What is interesting here is that this analysis, even though many may find it provocative and perhaps “too radical,” is very rational in how the incentives of political actors are analyzed. It is in the interest of the so-called “political class” to not let anyone publicly or authoritatively question the “public truths” about Swedish education. There is simply a lot – too much! – at stake here. A discussion on the educational system – no matter the outcome of it – would risk the whole system.

The analysis is, I agree, somewhat limited and seems very “simple” in the way I propose it. Yet there is reason to believe the excuses for not wanting to discuss an educational system falling apart are based in something else – something of greater value to the those refusing to discuss the issue at hand than the quality of public education. The question I am asking is simply: what could that value be?

Even though I might err to some degree in this analysis it is fairly obvious that what is happening is a typical “politics vs. reality” dispute. The choice is either politics or reality – the options are mutually exclusive.