Free education in the EU and the challenges of globalisation

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Free education is of essential importance to secure the accessibility of the educational system. It secures a meritocratic society where top universities are not exclusive for the higher social-economic class.

But free education is an enormous expense, which is why countries in the EU have a different approach towards dealing with the costs of the educational system. Some countries decide to fully cover the costs of education by tax revenues while others demand a tuition fee from students.

A strong argument for free education, is that it is an investment in the future since students will be the taxpayers of the future. But what happens when a student from abroad benefits from free education to leave to his or her home country again after graduation?

Globalisation challenges the existence of free education and the EU plays an essential rule in securing its survival.

In this blog, I will explain why.

Free education and Transnational educational strategies in the EU

Within the EU/EEA, several countries choose for an educational system with a very low or absent tuition fee. They are accessible for undergraduates from all of the EU under the same conditions as for citizens of the country itself.

According to research of BBC in 2018, these countries are Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and Greece.

Free education EUEU/EEA countries without a tuition fee in 2018

All these countries are attractive for EU students to study. Especially when high tuition fees are applicable in their home country.

For a Dutch student for example, Germany can be a very interesting country for studies. In the Netherlands, universities require a tuition fee of over €2000.- per year, while in Germany studies are free of charge.

With an identical cost of living to the Netherlands and a good variety of English courses, a full bachelor- and masterprogram would save the Dutch student over €10000.- in a time span of only five years.

Denmark and the Welfare State

While the absence of a tuition fee is already a discount on itself, some countries go even further. Denmark for example, offers students not only education free of charge but an additional student grant which turns into a gift after completion of their studies.

For EU students other than Danes, an additional requirement is made to be eligible for SU which is to have a small side job besides the studies. The idea behind the obligation to have a job, is to generate more tax income from international students.

Strictly financially speaking, international students put an additional pressure on the expenses of the Danish Welfare State. Whether that investment will return is completely dependent on if the students will stay in Denmark after graduation or not.


Where a country like Denmark seems quite generous towards international students, Croatia seems to choose a different path.

According to the earlier mentioned Report of BBC Research, free courses in Croatia are only offered in Croatian. Hereby, the courses are excluded for many international students.

Different approaches to an irreversible future

Free education can be seen as an important investment in the future since todays students will be the taxpayers of the future. The higher educated students are, the more likely they are to receive a high salary and thereby pay more taxes.

But even though this concept might sound reasonable, globalisation can be a threat for the future of tuition-free education. When students from abroad come to another EU country to study which they leave after their studies, the investment will never pay off.

Of course housing and the cost of living stimulate the local economy, but it is simply not sufficient to cover the high costs of the study program.

Fines or loans are measures that can be taken to avoid that from happening. Though, when that would be applied to foreign students only, it would make them unequal to the local population. This strikes the heart of the foundation of EU legislation in which all EU citizens are regarded equal.

Looking at the future, technological developments will stimulate globalisation and migration even further. It is therefore necessary, to find an answer to the challenges free education in the EU is facing to make it sustainable for the future.

A sustainable future for free education

Seen from a global perspective, the EU competes with power blocks such as the US, China, Russia and India. In order to maintain a strong position in the global knowledge economy, European education has to be of the highest quality.

Many European universities rank among the best educational institutes in the world. It is vital to maintain that position to remain a Post-Industrial superpower.

Diversity within the European educational systems is valuable since it provides different approaches to education. Using that diversity to its full potential, could lead to a tight connection between educational institutes and local industries and -expertise. 

Specialization of educational institutes all around Europe combined with the possibilities of distance education, would give all EU citizens access to top-quality education. All around Europe.

The European ‘Ecosystem’

When all educational institutes in the EU would be free of charge, balance would be created in the European ‘ecosystem’ of free movement and education. Regardless of where you decide to study and work, the EU as a whole will benefit from the educational investment.

Free education forces efficiency of the distribution of budget since the costs of the educational system will fully come down to tax revenues. That efficiency can be found through specialization of educational institutions.

Not only does profound specialization help to push the boundaries of science, it is at the same time more cost-efficient than spreading out budget over countless faculties in many different countries.

But the benefits of specialization of educational institutes do not stop at there. It creates a strong network of mutual dependency of EU countries contributing to internal peace in the EU. Besides that, it helps strengthening the position of the EU as a strong power block in the global knowledge economy.

The Anglo-Saxon model

While free education is one way to structure the educational system, American and British higher education shows us a different strategy. High tuition fees and privatized educational institutes are very common in both regions.

Privatizing education and high tuition fees, differ strongly from free education. The financial pressure of the educational system does not come down to the working taxpayer. Instead, many students are forced to take high loans to fund their studies. Over these loans they have to pay interest, making their studies one of their biggest financial burdens in life.

With that in mind, deciding what to study is heavily influenced by the profitability of the study, and whether those kind of studies fit the qualities and talents of the individual the best is questionable.

Personally, I believe education should be all about stimulating the intrinsic motivation of students to the fullest so they get a chance to work with their passion. I believe this will be more profitable in the longer run and increase the happiness of people significantly.

The well-being of European citizens

The American or British educational system might fit very well for students who know what they want and choose a profitable study. But what happens to those who pick the wrong studies, would like to do a less profitable program or need more time to find what it is they would like to do?

Many students struggle to find their passion and what it is they would like to work with. Student loans put that decision under enormous pressure, especially when it goes along with high interest rates.

The threshold to start a study program is therefore higher. Once a program is started, there is basically no way out. The student loan is increasing and so is the interest. Quitting a program leaves a student empty-handed without a diploma and with a loan.

Free education takes away that financial stress and allows people to keep developing themselves. Not only is that beneficial for students, it is essential for maintaining a leading position in the global knowledge-economy.

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