In ancient Greece, it was generally accepted that philosophers and teachers like Socrates did their work out of love of wisdom. If they were paid at all, it was by private parties and not by the state.

I personally never really understood the "Scandinavian" way of looking at education, namely that it is practically a job to be almost entirely subsidized by the state.

Is there any reasonable ground (through studies on cost to society, overall well-being of people etc) or any indisputable historical origins behind why state-subsidized salaries were introduced for higher education?

Related: What is the socio-economic argument or historical basis for university tuition fees?

  • 2
    How did ancient Greek philosophers and teachers like Socrates eat, if they weren't paid? Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 3:25
  • 1
    @AzorAhai-him- (1) You could be paid by private parties (as stated above)--this includes not just fees from rich patrons (Aristotle by Alexander) but also from more modestly endowed students/parents (as is still done today outside Scandinavia); (2) Payment by private parties could also include begging (Diogenes, also still done today to some small extent by e.g. Buddhist monks); (3) You could have been born rich (Plato).
    – user166788
    Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 3:38
  • 2
    This question is probably more suited to the politics SE rather than Academia. It is the same as asking any group of people why do you what you do etc. Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 10:47
  • 2
    In fact, only part of salaries of public university employees comes from the state (and this varies greatly depending on the state and university). In some states, the percentage is so low, that "state" universities practically function as private ones. Other major sources are: Tuition, fundraising ("development"), grants. By the way, your question applies equally well to other educational institutions (elementary/middle/high schools). Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 16:45
  • 3
    "You could be paid by private parties -- this includes [...] also from more modestly endowed students/parents (as is still done today outside Scandinavia)" I don't understand what makes you believe that public funding for higher education were merely a Scandinavian thing. Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 17:50

3 Answers 3


As the question is asking about the "Scandinavian" model, I will try to provide an answer from a (central-)European focus. During the Middle Ages universities, as we know them today, did not exist. The universities from those times were often independent study and teaching associations without formal structure. During the Renaissance, alternative research circles formed outside of the universities.

In the early modern age (Napoleonic and Victorian eras), many things changed. For one, the idea of nation states emerged. This meant that the administrative cadre was no longer simply nobles who fulfilled their duties to their overlords, but that there existed a state who employed people as administrators. This coincided with the rise of a Burgeois class of administrators, who needed formal education to fulfill their duties. This led to state run primary and secondary eduction, but also to the establishment of "modern" universities. For example, France instituted universities (or "grande école") that educated their students in one particular topic (such as naval engineering or mine supervision). In Germany, for another example, the Prussian reforms after the defeat against Napoleon established a similar bourgeois body of administration instead of the absolutistic system. University were founded to guarantee proper eductation to the new administrative cadre.

These early universities were seen as necessity by the state to raise its own prospective administrators and were therefore largely subsidized or run by the state itself. However, Humboldt developed a different vision. Among other things, students at this university should have the freedom of study, rather than following a strict curriculum. His ideas spread throughout Europe and even into the United States.

The modern European university system is therefore a remnat of these Humboldtian ideals. The state no longer funds universities for creating their own administrative cadre, but to offer a comprehensive education for its well-informed citizen. The question about the socio-economic benefits therefore becomes a bit moot, as the states run universities not because it is cheaper (or better) than private funding, but because it is seen as the duty of the state to provide this type of education.

Of course modern systems vary quiet widely between countries (even in Europe), so that of course there exist many nuances that I did not cover in this answer.


In the US, at least, and likely true elsewhere, some (not all) colleges and universities are funded primarily by State governments since it is recognized that an educated populace is a common good and contributes positively to the economy. Therefore tax revenue (which comes from the populace) is used to fund it. The Federal government tends to fund projects that might happen at universities, but not so much the universities per se.

I don't know if this was the first use, but when the US started to expand westward, the "land grant" program was used to create a system of universities that were primarily (in intent) to advance agriculture. Midwestern states in particular still have universities that devote a large part of their attention to agriculture. Cornell has such a division, as does Michigan State. But both of those, like the others have a wider mission support of which is related to economic ideas.

If the citizens know more they will, in principle, be more productive.

Possibly orthogonal to this is that in a democracy, there is a sense that an educated populace, even in such things as philosophy and other humanities, will lead to a more stable society. Government has a vested interest in stability as well as the economy.

If you go back far enough in history, the educated were also the wealthy. And if the social system required that all wealth be inherited by the first born son, then others in that social class needed something to do since they weren't "managing" the land. Some became educators: tutors. Some took up science. If pay was needed it would come from "patrons". But that system doesn't scale well.


The purpose of a system is what it does. If a system has been around for considerable time and nobody has changed it, then it must be concluded that they want it to do what it is doing. Or, at least, they don't dislike it enough to make the effort to change it.

What does the government funded university system do? That will tell you what the purpose is. Any claims about what it is intended to do that contradict this will need to be deprecated.

Over the period 2003 to 2023:

  • Tuition and fees at private National Universities have jumped 134%.
  • Out-of-state tuition and fees at public National Universities have risen 141%.
  • In-state tuition and fees at public National Universities have grown the most, increasing 175%.

Hmmm... Saving money does not seem to be in the list of purposes of government funding.

Why are universities becoming so expensive? The answer is clear: much larger number of administrators per student. A quote from that article:

“The interesting thing about the administrative bloat in higher education is, literally, nobody knows who all these people are or what they’re doing,” says Todd Zywicki, a law professor at George Mason University

But there is a reason for it, and there is somebody who knows. (Well... That is, he used to know. He has sadly died.) Jerry Pournelle told us what happens to bureaucracy when permitted to grow.

Pournelle's iron law of bureaucracy:
In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals that the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely

Some universities have become indoctrination centers for various dogmas from left or right. Some have become places for CEOs and politicians to be "from." Some have become party schools where students go to destroy brain cells for four years.

But nearly all of them have become places to hire onto as administrators. Government funding protects them from competition and prevents them having to "clean house." And the administrators then wield the university's resources to protect their administrative activities.

  • 1
    -1 I don't see how this is supposed to answer the question: how does a strong increase of tuition fees and bureaucracy in US universities during the past 20 years give an explanation of why, in some other countries, professors or mainly paid by the state? Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 10:19

You must log in to answer this question.