University education benefits society in several ways. A skilled, university-educated workforce can boost economic growth and make society richer than it would have been without them. Less well-off and less well-educated people benefit from this, just as a rising tide lifts all boats.
The experience of going through university generally produces people who are not only educated in their chosen subjects, but who have been exposed to more cultural influences in the process. Many people would think a society to be a better one if it contained significant numbers of educated and cultured people. It provides more opportunities for intellectual stimulation and self-development.
All of this is true to some degree, and benefits society as a whole, but there is little doubt that by far the greatest value of a university education accrues to the person who undertakes it. There is firstly the personal fulfilment that comes from attaining more of one's potential, but there are more material rewards as well.
Possession of a university degree in the UK increases one's employability. For those in the workforce, aged 18-65, employment among graduates is 87%, as opposed to 70% for non-graduates. Median salary is higher, too, with graduates on average earning £9,000 more per year than their non-graduate counterparts. Over a working life this could top £400,000 of extra salary attributable to the degree.
This constitutes an overwhelming advantage accruing to the individual who undertakes a university degree. While there are undoubted benefits to society, those gained by the individual are high and measurable. They make the loans undertaken to finance university, perhaps £36,000 for a 3-year degree, a very good investment indeed.
When people suggest the state should pay for this, they mean taxpayers should. It seems strange that a person not equipped to benefit from university, someone who leaves school at 16 to become a bricklayer, for example, should be called upon to pay higher taxes so that someone else, already endowed with more academic and intellectual ability, should benefit from what amounts to a ticket to a higher salary for life.
Some would call this unfair, and suggest that those who gain the most from university education should finance most of its costs.