It is impossible to deny that for the past five years the idea of free tertiary education has been having renewed success globally. It all started in 2012 with the massive student demonstration in Chile that led to the current president, Michelle Bachelet, promising free tertiary higher education for all in the public and private sectors.
Although a law was passed to enable implementation of free tuition for some students in chosen institutions, she is still to fulfil that promise.
The movement then spread to South Africa in 2015, where the #FeesMustFall movement made the headlines. The demonstration led to the government announcing that fees would be frozen in 2016. The movement was revived in 2016 as discussions around 2017 tuition fees were scheduled, although with less momentum. The fee freeze was not continued, but increases were capped at 8%, and the government increased its budget for higher education.
In parallel, the 2016 United States presidential election revived the issue of tuition fees in a country where student debt is highly publicised in the media. A significant part of the education campaign of Bernie Sanders, a contender for the Democrats, focused on free tuition colleges. At that time President Barack Obama was also pushing for free tuition for community colleges.
These three countries’ example shows how the idea that tertiary education should be free is spreading around the world at a time when cost sharing is becoming the norm globally. In that respect, countries with free and low tuition in Europe, especially in the Nordic region, are held up as examples – although they are having their own debate around tuition fees and it is notable that some have started charging tuition fees for international students.
Free tuition in England?
It is therefore no surprise that the idea of free tuition should come to England. Not only is it surrounded by countries with free or low tuition – including Scotland, Ireland and France – but it has seen one of the steepest increases in fees in recent years.
In 2010, English institutions were allowed to increase tuition fees from just £3,000 to £9,000 (US$3,800 to US$11,600), a reform that was implemented in 2012, making England effectively a stand-out country in Europe in terms of the level of tuition fees charged.
This has been followed by the suppression of grants and the National Scholarship Programme, which have been replaced with loans. A recent report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies indicates that the poorest students will graduate with £57,000 (US$73,400) debt.
The subject of tuition fees in England is therefore a sensitive one. Hikes in tuition fees have not been welcomed by students or their families, leading to widespread student protest in 2010 and 2012. Since then, there has rarely been a year in England without a student protest against tuition fees.
In this context, the claims of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, in the general election of June 2017 that he would abolish tuition fees were widely commented on. As the elections ended in a hung parliament, Corbyn is keeping his campaign up and education fees are front and centre of it. And, as always in these cases, the main argument is that tuition-free higher education will lead to universal access. But will it?
The problems of free tuition
In many cases, free higher education is a policy that benefits those in higher socio-economic groups most. The main issue is that free tuition for all is an untargeted policy that is aimed at equality, not equity. While tuition-free higher education would enable middle-class individuals to go to college unaided and only have to pay for the cost of living, students from poorer backgrounds would still struggle to cover that cost.
As the government budget would be fully targeted at covering tuition fees, the chances are that less aid would be available to cover the cost of living – especially as maintenance grants are already being cut – to the detriment of the disadvantaged. Recent research tends to show that living costs are much more of a barrier to higher education than tuition fees.
The question of sustainability is also important in a context where ever more students enter higher education and higher education costs are increasing. Whether Britain would be able to sustain the trend towards greater participation is a question that needs to be asked early on because free higher education is a difficult policy to overturn.
And in countries where higher education fees have not been implemented for cultural, social or political reasons, it has often led to restrictions in the number of places in public sector institutions. In such cases, selection is always based on merit which once again benefits the richest.
And finally the question of quality should not be forgotten. In a free tuition system, the government should commit to financing quality higher education. It is not enough to remove the financial barrier of fees. All students should also have access to high-quality degrees that will enable them to fully participate in the economic life of the country. Free higher education is not a useful policy if it increases participation but also increases attrition.
Overall, free tuition is a policy that promises a lot but often fails to deliver, especially when it comes to access. Equity should be the main concern for access of all to higher education, in England and elsewhere, and this cannot be obtained with untargeted policies.
Grants, which England is currently cutting, seem like better instruments to ensure the access and success of disadvantaged populations to higher education – as well, of course, as a focus on the K-12 sector to bridge the educational gap early on.
Ariane de Gayardon is a research associate at UCL Institute of Education’s Centre for Global Higher Education, United Kingdom.
Calling it a delusion is, in itself, delusional.
Christopher MacHurambe on the University World News Facebook page
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters