Let's talk tuition fees. They've been in the news recently (for a sample: here, here, here, and here). Putting aside any economic considerations, though (I will return to them before I'm done), why, exactly, should anyone pay tuition for post-secondary education? It didn't always used to be the way it is. To be sure, if you go back to the days when scholars were little more than itinerants, supported by the fees of their students, then you can try to build a historical case for tuition. However, during the heyday of the religious universities (or equivalent), tuition was not charged, as instructors were already employed by the relevant church, and the church covered all operating costs.
So, the historical case can go either way (not that the claim that something has been the case in any way underwrites that it should be the case). What arguments, then, could be made to support tuition?
The first argument I will consider is what I'll call the valuing argument. The valuing argument goes like this. In contemporary culture, people value things only if they've had to give something up for them. Usually, this takes the form of money: goods are treated as if they are valuable in proportion to the amount that they cost. Since we want people to value their education, we should charge an amount that is comparable to how much we want them to value it. Thus, we should charge tuition.
Formalizing a bit, we get the following deductively valid chain of reasoning:
(1) People value what they have had to sacrifice for.
(2) Sacrificing for is, usually, payment with money.
(3) People should value education.
(4) Thus, people should sacrifice for education.
(5) Thus, people should, usually, pay with money for education.
In tidying up the argument, it becomes apparent that the original conclusion doesn't strictly follow. What follows is the weaker claim expressed on (5), and (5) leaves open the possibility (because of the "usually" on (2)) that the sacrifice for education could take a form other than paying for it. But, let me put that aside.
(1) is the real linchpin of the argument; if (1) goes, the whole argument goes. And it's pretty easy to pull down (1). Sacrifice is costly, not just in material terms, but also in psychological ones. That is, sacrifice takes its own toll on the person who is sacrificing. Oftentimes, the sacrifice is relatively minor, so the toll is relatively minor. Anyone who has worked a manual labour job knows this; the sacrifice of energy and effort (in order to receive payment, which is valued) results in tiredness and, possibly, ill humour. But these are temporary states of affairs, and the payment is a little more lasting; thus, on the whole, it's a reasonable trade. The problem, though, is when the sacrifice is more significant, such as when a good employment opportunity is given up in order to stay close to one's family. Often, though not always, this will result in a sustained period of bitterness and resentment. That is, the sacrifice is sufficiently valued to the person that having to give it up, even for a goal that is valued equally (or even valued greater), that the loss of the sacrificed thing takes a significant psychological cost -- a cost which then transfers over to the goal achieved.
In short, then, psychology is more complicated than (1) suggests. Valuing doesn't directly follow from sacrificing. When the sacrifice is beyond some threshold of personal value, then the psychological cost of so sacrificing will be that the thing sacrificed for actually loses value. This is a bad result, for two reasons. First, it means that (1) should be hedged as is (2), with a "usually" or even a "sometimes". Second, it means that exacting large costs for education could actually lead to a disvaluing of education, which is contrary to the aim that the valuing argument is trying to underwrite, namely that there is a value to education that must be sustained.
So, the lessons of the valuing argument are two: first, it doesn't really work (there is ample room, on modified (1), on (2) and on (5) for alternate solutions); and, second, it really doesn't work (the opposite aim may be achieved).
Incidentally, the claim that we value what we sacrifice for can be undercut in another way. It's not just the case that we may devalue what we sacrifice for when the sacrifice is significant, but it's also the case that we may sacrifice for something, and then waste it. Food is a good example of this in our society. We sacrifice, through work, in order to make money such that we can buy food. But, frequently, food, whether in raw form or after significant preparation (think of restaurants), is left unconsumed and simply disposed. How does this make sense? We value food, clearly (if we didn't, we'd die), and we sacrifice in order to be able to afford it. But, even though we sacrifice, and even though we value, we nonetheless waste, which is usually a measure of disvalue. Thus, not only can we get weird feedback between sacrifice and value, but sacrifice looks (in some cases) independent of value.
Moving on to a second argument, which should be highly familiar. This is what I will call the privilege argument and it states, simply, that education is a privilege not a right, and anything that is a privilege can be withheld for failure to pay. So, formalizing a little:
(1) If something is a right, it cannot be withheld for any reason.
(2) If something is a privilege, it can be withheld for any reason.
(3) Everything is either a privilege or a right.
(4) Education is not a right.
(5) Thus, education is a privilege.
This is a notoriously popular argument, but it is very, very poor. The logic is all right, but the claims are all false. First, for a given value of "right", education is a right, contradicting (4). The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26 (1): "(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit." Although it is a declaration, and thus has no signatories, the Declaration was supported by the US government of the time, as well as the European Union in the last few years. So, at least as far as these countries are concerned, the Declaration has some legitimacy.
Putting that aside, though, and moving upwards through the argument. (3) is false, on anything other than a very limited reading of "everything". Not all services are rights or privileges (garbage disposal, for example); not everything provided by the state is a right or a privilege (e.g., food safety); and so on. Indeed, except for specifically laundry-listing the items that could fall within the parochial definitions on (1) and (2), there's really no way to cash out what "everything" is supposed to mean here.
(2) is, as said, a parochial understanding of privileges. Literally, "privilege" means "private law" -- the idea being that members of certain classes had "privileges" because ordinary laws didn't apply to them. The idea that remains, though, seems to be that a privilege is something that one earns. So, for example, you can have office privileges in your workplace, or parking privileges, or are privileged to have a generous pension. But these cannot be taken away for just any arbitrary reason; the particular reason needs to be underwritten by something else. So, you could lose your parking privileges if you had agreed to only park during certain hours, and you broke that agreement. The same should apply to education if it is a privilege: it can only be withheld from you for particular reasons relevant to the circumstances in which you earned the privilege. Whether or not ability to pay is one of those reasons is a substantive issue whose solution cannot just be assumed by fiat. Really, it will depend on what kind of story we want to tell about why people deserve education. Note, though, that if this story is just "those who deserve it are those who can pay for it", then the question at stake is flatly begged.
(1) is parochial as well. Rights can be taken away for all kinds of reasons. (1) conflates right with inalienable right, the latter being a special and particularly (even peculiarly) strong class of rights. A right is just a legitimate claim. I have a right to free speech in Canada because the Constitution of Canada says I do. That document legitimizes my claim, thus I have a right. If the Constitution were to change, I would not have that right. If I were to live somewhere else, I may not have that right. So, the persistance of a right, generally, is highly sensitive to the contextual factors that legitimate the rights-claim. Which means that it's relatively easy to take my rights away, or to give me more, or to give me different ones.
So, the privilege argument is an utter failure. I also suspect it is, at heart, a covert classism (which, in many societies, turns into a de facto racism and/or sexism as well). That is, higher education is something that only the wealthy really deserve. This harkens back to the "private law" understanding of "privilege". If there were something genuinely superior about the upper classes, the argument might work; but, since placement in the upper classes is as much a matter of fortune as it is of desert, it follows that there is no such superiority. Thus, they do not deserve to have their own private law.
The third argument is even simpler. I will call it the necessity argument. According to the necessity argument, one could justify a tuition-free post-secondary education if such education were necessary. But it isn't: post-secondary education is an optional extra. Thus, tuition should still be charged.
Formalizing, we get this:
(1) If education is necessary, it should be free.
(2) Education is not necessary.
(3) Therefore, it should not be free.
This is the argument that actually doesn't work. It's a formal fallacy: denying the antecedent. Even if education is not necessary, there could still be other reasons why it should be free, reasons which the argument says absolutely nothing about.
Furthermore, the sense in which education is not "necessary" looks, again, highly parochial. One could, in principle, survive as a single person in a very small apartment, living a very meagre life, on the kind of wages one could reasonably expect to earn without any post-secondary education, for a certain period of time, presuming continued good health and no significant changes in the prices of the staples of life. That is what that "necessary" could mean, reading it in the most charitable way possible. Since there is no good reason to accept that measure, there is no good reason to accept that education is not necessary. So, even if the logic worked, the claim in (2) is false.
Finally, (1) is also false. We have freebies that aren't necessary all over the place. Clean air, for example, is not necessary. You could live, for a time, without it. (After all, humanity survived the Industrial Revolution, and the air was almost unbreathable.) But we aren't charged a fee for having clean air: it is simply given to us by government intervention in the operations of potential polluters. And the reason for this intervention is that, on balance, there is more good done by having clean air than there is bad done by intervening in the market. In short, the action is taken because it improves things. A similar argument is not hard to make for education: if no-tuition post-secondary education would be a better state of affairs than the current one, then no-tuition post-secondary education should exist.
To sum up: the value of education is not well-assured by charging for it, contrary to the valuing argument; education, even if a privilege, cannot obviously be awarded or taken away on the basis of ability to pay, contrary to the privilege argument; and, education, even if not necessary, could still be justifiably offered for no fees, contrary to the necessity argument.
Of course, none of this amounts to an argument that post-secondary education should be free. But, do I really have to offer one? In order to presume that the burden of proof is on the person who looks at elementary and secondary education, and wants to extend the "no fee" model to post-secondary education, we have to presume that tuition fees are somehow a "natural" state of affairs, an obvious starting-point which everyone must either agree with or decisively defeat. But this is not obvious. As I pointed out at the beginning, historically, both models have existed. Furthermore, as my critiques of the arguments against free tuition showed, the case that charging tuition is a groundstate has not been well-made: it rests on dubious assumptions and bad logic.
However, I do have an argument. It will not convince those who believe tuition fees are a groundstate, but I am not interested in persuading those people. Tuition fees are clearly not a natural groundstate; people who refuse to believe that are beyond the reach of reason and argument.
My argument goes like this:
(1) Education is a good.
(2) The more of a good is available, the more good there is.
(3) Therefore, there should be more education available.
This is an argument that can also be made to support public healthcare, public pension schemes, and so on.
To close, I promised a brief discussion of economic issues. Clearly, tuition fees cannot be eliminated tomorrow by government fiat. There is as yet insufficient money to pay for tuition for everyone who wants it; there are also insufficient university (and college, etc.) places for those who would profit from education. So, economically, tuition fees accomplish two things: they cover the gap in government funding, and they act as a throttle on the numbers of students seeking places in various institutions. So, there would need to be a massive tax increase and a program of investment in developing post-secondary institutions in order for a free tuition program to really start doing good. These are not impossible goals, but they are long-term goals. In the short-term, it seems reasonable to me to suggest that we make a start: reduce tuition fees, with an eye towards eliminating them; raise taxes in order to fund a better educated, and thus better (and, for that matter, more profitable) society; and invest in developing university infrastructure.