No easy way out of the higher education ‘trilemma’

Student movements such as #FeesMustFall in South Africa must demand both free higher education and matching increases in public spending, or risk incentivising governments to take the easy way out and compromise higher education quality.

In a contribution to University World News last May, Nico Cloete discussed the specific challenges that developing countries face regarding the expansion of access to higher education in relation to levels of public and private funding.

Cloete’s central questions – “Who benefits?” and “Who pays what when?” – point to a key characteristic of higher education, which makes it different from primary or secondary education and also many welfare state measures: even in the most inclusive societies in the world with the highest levels of enrolment, access to higher education is not universal in the sense that everybody attends higher education.

Therefore, even in the Scandinavian countries with their very high levels of enrolment, there are social factors that make it more or less probable for a teenager to enter higher education.

The conclusion from the academic literature is that access to higher education is in general skewed to more affluent parts of the population (Ansell 2010; Lucas 2001; Raftery and Hout 1993) since the socio-economic and the educational backgrounds of parents are strongly correlated with the likelihood of their children attending higher education institutions.

This makes the re-distributive characteristics of higher education very complex and some actually argue that higher education is among the least re-distributive welfare measures (Jensen 2011).

As potential students need to successfully navigate primary and secondary education before they can even attempt to enter higher education, any selection that happens during these phases automatically also affects the re-distributive potential of higher education.


An additional problem in the debates on access to and funding of higher education is that it is most of the time discussed as a stand-alone issue with clear demands from sectoral stakeholders, such as student unions or university rectors.

However, politics is always also about trade-offs between different policy areas or issues. Since public budgets as well as the attention of legislators and government officials are limited, a focus on one policy area always means that resources and government attention are drawn away from other areas.

If trade-offs between different policies are discussed, then this usually only happens among members of the government and not as part of a public debate. A government would, for example, never suggest cutting pensions to fund an increase in study places, while de facto both policies always compete for the same pool of governmental resources.

In this context, education as well as higher education policy have an advantage as they are often described as political ‘crowd pleasers’ (Ansell 2010) since no politician would today campaign on an anti-education platform or openly promote restrictions on access to education.

While this trend has led some scholars to claim that we are witnessing a growing global consensus on the expansion of education (Jakobi 2011; Schofer and Meyer 2005), others argue that the attractiveness of education policy makes political competition more intense (Busemeyer, Franzmann and Garritzmann 2013).

A ‘trilemma’

In his contribution, Cloete refers to the conceptualisation of political dynamics in higher education proposed by Ben Ansell (2010), who suggests that governments face a ‘trilemma’ in higher education policy as they can always only reach two out of three politically desirable goals: low public costs, low private costs (tuition fees), and mass access to higher education.

He further argues that if a government wants to shift its attention to the goal which has so far been neglected it has to sacrifice one of the other two in order to reach it.

So if, for example, a government faces a higher education system that has low public costs and low private costs but a very limited level of access to higher education and it wants to increase access to a mass level, it needs to either spend more public money, thus sacrificing the low public costs attribute, or allow for the introduction of tuition fees, thus sacrificing the low private costs attribute.

Ansell further argues that a government’s choice will depend on its partisan composition. Thus, choosing between the two options is a key political question as it has major impact on the re-distributive characteristics of higher education.

While Cloete discusses these options in his article, Ansell very briefly acknowledges another possibility that Cloete does not include in his line of thought, but which is relevant for contemporary higher education policy discussions, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In a brief section of his book, Ansell argues that the trilemmas work under the assumption that governments want to keep the quality of higher education at least stable, meaning that they would not increase access to higher education without providing additional public or private funding, as this would lead to a reduction in per-student funding and thus jeopardise the quality of higher education in the long run.

While Ansell argues that any far-sighted government would not embark on such a path as it would only provide a populist short-term solution to the trade-off between levels of access and funding, there are indications that even in industrialised countries this option is not completely off the table.

One example that Ansell mentions is the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party, which increased access to higher education without additional funding in the late 1980s leading to decreased per-student funding.

The case of Germany

Following a similar argument, Plümper and Schneider investigated in a 2007 study the assumption that governments can use the expansion of access to higher education without providing additional funding as a way to decrease youth unemployment at no public cost shortly before elections.

They argue that through this measure the government wins support both through the successful decrease in unemployment and the increase in access to higher education. The risk of this policy – decreasing quality in higher education due to the diminished per-student funding – emerges only with a certain time lag and is not as visible to the electorate. Thus, the chance that the government gets punished for running this risk is comparatively low.

In their empirical analysis of German higher education spending between 1975 and 2000, Plümper and Schneider find support for their hypothesis that rising unemployment leads to increased access to higher education but also significantly reduced per-student funding.

Taking into consideration Ansell’s trilemma and the fact that German higher education during the time of their analysis was tuition free, it becomes clear that what Plümper and Schneider identify in Germany is the way out of the trilemma that Ansell points to in his book.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Shifting the focus now to Sub-Saharan Africa and ongoing debates about equal access to higher education and higher education funding, the above analysis introduces a potential new threat for higher education systems in the region.

In the framework of the ambitious plan laid out in the Dakar Declaration to massively increase enrolment levels throughout the region in the next 50 years, and with growing pressure from students and society in general to increase access and abolish tuition fees, governments with limited budgetary resources might be tempted to opt for the populist policy solution and increase access to higher education without additional public or private funds.

This is especially tempting since increased investments in higher education were found in a 2012 study by the Southern African Regional Universities Association to only start paying off economically after several decades, making it difficult for the government that decides to spend more on higher education to also enjoy the resulting economic benefits.

While increasing access to higher education without additional funding would satisfy society’s demands at the moment, it puts higher education institutions in a tough spot as they are the ones who have to adjust budgets and deliver more output with the same fiscal input.

If higher education has not been funded above its needs in the past, this will most probably lead to larger class sizes, deteriorating infrastructure and a growing teaching load for academic staff, thus also limiting the ability of academics to do research.

Cutting tuition fees, as it was discussed in South Africa, without increased public funding as a form of compensation, would have a similar effect on higher education institutions: their per-student funding would decrease, and they would face a similar set of challenges.

Some conclusions

So where does this leave the discussion on access to and funding of higher education?

Similar to its complex re-distributive characteristics, policy options for more equal access to higher education are complicated and, especially when competing for public resources with other social policies, there might be significant trade-offs that governments have to make.

In these situations, governments might be tempted to make higher education more accessible, be it by increasing the number of students or decreasing tuition fees, without committing additional public funding.

While this will satisfy public demands and might lead to additional votes in elections, it will also put a lot of pressure on universities and threaten the quality of higher education in the country. However, as these negative effects become visible with a certain time lag they might be less relevant for governments who have to win an election at a given point in time.

For the different stakeholder groups in higher education, this adds complexity to their lobbying and campaigning activities as, for example, student movements such as the #FeesMustFall movement need to simultaneously demand free higher education and matching increases in public spending for higher education if they do not want to incentivise governments to take the easy way out and risk the quality of higher education.

Overall, a tuition-free mass higher education system that has no proper public funding can neither provide its academics with the environment necessary for good research, nor can it enable the students to get the most out of their education and actually use their educational experience to be successful in the labour market and thus improve their socio-economic situation.

This is because, as Cloete already concludes in his contribution, there is no free higher education – the question is always how the costs are socially distributed.

Dr Jens Jungblut is with the International Centre for Higher Education Research at the University of Kassel in Germany.

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