What is wrong with free higher education? Examples from around the world

Blog Post Author: Ariane de Gayardon de Fenoyl

Date: March 2015

What is wrong with free higher education? Examples from around the world

In 2011, Chilean students took the street to demonstrate against the state of the educational system in their country. At the heart of their demands was the claim for free education – primary, secondary, and tertiary. The promise of free higher education in Chile became a major stake in the presidential election, and their current president is now trying to set up a solution to honour her electoral promise. More recently, in November 2014, thousands of English students demonstrated against tuition fees, also asking for free higher education. At a time when many countries are struggling with rising tuition, unacceptable levels of student debts, and recurrent cuts on university budgets, the ideal of free higher education is attractive. Wouldn’t free higher education help students access higher education? Wouldn’t it lower debt levels? Wouldn’t it force governments to support higher education in the face of all opposition?

But free higher education might not be the right answer to the problems of today’s higher education systems, it might indeed create more problems than solutions. The longing for free higher education risks only to detract people from the real problems that higher education faces, and ask for an unsustainable solution that few governments seem to be able to implement today. In fact, half the countries in the world claim they offer some type of free-tuition higher education, but they have the same problems as many countries that charge tuition. In short, is fight for free higher education really worth it?

There is no need to say that the past decades have seen more countries institute tuition fees, rather than become free, with some notable exceptions – like Ireland or Germany. Most countries that do not charge tuition for free higher education have difficulty revoking this decision for legal, political and historical reasons. For instance, the Nordic countries are well-known for being the embodiment of welfare state, and therefore citizens agree on paying high taxes for such public services as education to be free. Another example is Latin America, where there is no tuition at public universities as a result of the University of Cordoba student uprising in 1918. In the ex-soviet countries, free higher education is often written in the Constitution, a legacy from the communist ideology.

Notwithstanding the deep roots behind the decision to offer free public higher education, governments in many supposedly free countries are finding loopholes to decrease the burden on the state budget. Some countries, especially from the former Soviet Union, are establishing dual-track mechanism, i.e. reducing the number of subsidies places in public programs, while allowing for universities to enroll extra paying students. The free places are given to students based on merit. In Russia, more than 50 percent of the students in public universities are now paying tuition. Other countries are countering free-tuition higher education by asking for students to pay nominal fees. One stunning example is Ireland, whose current student contribution of €2750 is higher than the tuition fee that was charged to students in 1996 prior to the adoption of free higher education.

Ironically, there are students in the free higher education systems that have similar financial issues than in systems with tuitions. Not only are governments finding ways for most students to still pay for their education, but higher education’s cost is not limited to tuition fees. Cost of living and opportunity cost are major issues in free higher education systems as well. A study from 2005 has shown that more Swedish students graduate with debts than American students, and that the average debt and debt-to-income ratio are higher in Sweden. The difference? Sweden does not charge tuition. Yet, studying in Sweden remains extremely expensive and its cost is comparable to countries that charge high tuitions.

How does this evidence from all over the world inform our thinking about free higher education? If the first and most prominent aim of charging no tuition is to improve access to tertiary higher education, these examples show that this goal is seldom attained. In light of scarcer financial government support to higher education, countries stuck in a free system either restrict the number of free spaces available, or find ways to charge students anyway. In the former case, spaces are filled according to a merit-based system and therefore benefit students from higher social strata. In the second case, the financial burden is simply displaced – either in terms of non-tuition fees or through cost of living – erecting a similar financial barrier for students from low socio-economic status than countries actually charging tuitions.

If free higher education does not improve access, does not lower student debt, does not force government to keep subsidizing higher education, and creates the same issue as tuition-charging higher education, then isn’t it time to stop longing for it and instead find innovative, fair, and equitable ways to finance higher education?

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