The recent announcement that Germany would make higher education free of tuition provoked a pronounced reaction on campus. Our student radicals jumped on the occasion as a chance to argue that the same ought to apply in Canada. These students are just as greedy as Wall Street fat cats. The greed of thousands of dollars returned clouded their wisdom and judgment.

Nowadays, between edX and public libraries, it’s possible to get a serviceable education for free. Those math functions work the same way no matter how large the bill for learning them.  Increasingly, major firms are ceasing to care how expertise is acquired just so long as their workers are competent. Frankly, that engineering degree is, arguably, a four-year multi-thousand dollar boondoggle.

The real way elite education works is not in the classroom. Where universities are most successful is as a sort of intellectual matchmaker. What an institution like U of T is  good at is joining together interested thinkers, reminding them of interesting issues in classes, and then creating the casual social settings where important issues are discussed in depth. Surely nobody is naive enough to think that properly structuring a paper is how we acquire knowledge.

Invariably, the most memorable and thought-provoking things are not a part of  a normal curriculum. Learning how ‘e’ in today’s English is often a collapsed form of the diphthong ‘ae’ was a far more useful part of last year’s Medieval Latin 200 than any number of texts I’ve already forgotten. That sort of casual anecdote cannot be provided any other way.

There is the crux of good education: it is immeasurable. Any of its obvious constituent elements, from books to friendship, can be had for free — yet, no formula can replace a real education. Real education is extraordinarily expensive and produces few obvious benefits, yet it is necessary to produce better citizens.

The cost of a good education comes in many forms. There, is of course, the cost of living, which is substantially heightened for an education of the top quality — freedom from work and financial concerns are necessary for someone to devote all of their time to academic thought.

Professors must also maintain their livelihoods, and a conversation with a good one is worth not only their salary but also those of countless other mediocre ones.

Likewise, good education requires facilities. It requires books bought from the store. It’s really like any sport — it can be done cheaply, but at the highest level, it requires great expense.

Each cost of education seems excessive and unnecessary but, when combined, they are all somehow necessary. All of these costs help foster a certain kind of environment in which intellectualism ceases to be a matter of work or duty and becomes both natural and casual. Count the hours of your day that are spent on duties and the hours spent on casual parts of life. It is only when something reaches the same level of naturalness that it can become sufficiently essential to life, that it surpasses being a chore and becomes a part of you who are. Learning that way is expensive, but it is undoubtedly the best way to get an education.

Of course someone has to pay those costs. There is no sensible way to equate university with job training; preparation for work can be learned quickly, cheaply, and often on the job. The only value of an undergraduate degree in the labour market is as a symbol of class or of monetary and temporal commitment to doing that job. Slowly, everybody is realizing that the costs of education don’t come back to you as money — the return on investment is in character.

So who should pay these high costs? If education is to be done properly, someone must. There is indeed good reason for society to invest in young people. Plenty is already spent on the old, so surely the young are equally worthy. However, expecting any government to pick up the entire cost is unreasonable. Free education would encourage uncurious students to attend university regardless of whether they are actually at a phase in their lives to appreciate learning. Worse, it would create a series of perverse incentives.

A friend of mine in the Czech Republic tells me how underfunded free education is there. It’s politically easy for the government to cut, which results in under-paid professors and improperly maintained facilities. Nobody who gives up five years of his or her life wants to endure that. Likewise, free tuition also provides an incentive for students to live at home — the cost of residence gets larger in relation to the whole as tuition prices decrease. The advantages of living with likeminded thinkers seem mundane while doing finances, but their advantages are incalculable.

Of course, if the state fully funds the best higher education, which taxpayers should pick up the bill? Should the elderly who live on pensions pay for students’ lives and education? It seems unfair to ask the childless who aren’t sending off any students, so who does that leave? We would still be asking affluent parents to fund their children’s education and subsidize the education of the poor. The only difference between charging some tuition to more affluent families and doing it through the tax system is that the latter will result in damaging cuts to education and an excessive focus on job training and economic payout. Saying no to tuition fees is the same as saying no to education itself, and in that the German government threatens a grievous harm.

Jeffrey Schulman is a second-year student at Trinity College studying classics.