What are the implications of free public tertiary education?
The justification he gave was that young people must be prepared to face the challenges of the next 50 years – Mauritius in 2018 celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence from the United Kingdom.
The announcement took everyone by surprise, including the public tertiary education institutions that are directly affected. Indications are that this was not a planned decision based on an analysis of facts and figures but more of a populist, political one. Some have even suggested that its aim is to secure votes in the forthcoming general elections due at the end of 2019.
There are at present four public universities and six public institutes. The latter do not have degree-awarding powers but can award their own certificates and diplomas.
In December 2017, total student enrolment in public institutions was 21,902, the four universities accounting for 83% of that figure, and the University of Mauritius (UoM), the oldest and largest institution, enrolling 40% of all the students at public institutions.
The 45 private institutions enrolled 16,948 students, representing 44% of total tertiary enrolment. The Gross Tertiary Enrolment Ratio for Mauritius, which has a population of about 1.3 million, was 39%, one of the highest in Africa.
When UoM was created in the 1960s, it did charge tuition fees. In December 1976, on the eve of general elections, the government abolished fees at all levels of education in a politically motivated decision. However, fees were reintroduced at UoM in 1980, and then abolished again in 1988, but only for full-time undergraduate courses, with fees being maintained for all part-time and postgraduate courses.
At that time, the UoM was the only public university. In 2000, the University of Technology, Mauritius (UTM) was established as the second public university and tuition fees were payable for all courses at all levels. The same principle applied to the other two universities that were set up later. That clearly placed UoM in an anomalous situation.
Over the next years, in order to supplement the grant it received from government, UoM introduced several ‘administrative’ fees (for registration, library use, examinations, laboratories, etc), over and above tuition fees. These were applicable to all students, including full-time undergraduates. The other three universities have also adopted the same approach.
UoM went further and started running what have come to be known as ‘parallel’ programmes whereby students are admitted to full-time undergraduate programmes that charge full tuition fees which run in parallel with those where no tuition fees are charged. The students on parallel programmes will now not pay tuition fees.
The government has clarified that only tuition fees will be waived, not administrative fees. Also, the administrative fees to be charged by institutions will be limited to a specified amount that is less than 50% of the amount that the UoM is currently charging.
In 2017-18, the government’s budget allocated to the public tertiary education sector was MUR1.23 billion (about US$35 million), representing 6.8% of the total budget of the Ministry of Education. The annual recurrent grant to the four public universities amounts to about MUR800 million, 80% of which goes to UoM.
It has been announced that the cost of free tertiary education to government will be MUR600 million, which represents 49% of the current tertiary education budget. The source of that additional funding is not yet known.
Will access increase?
A pertinent question is whether free public tertiary education will result in an increase in access and enrolment, which is necessary for the country’s future development. The underlying assumption of the new measure appears to be that tuition fees have been a deterrent to students wishing to access tertiary institutions.
It is true that student enrolment in both public and private tertiary institutions in Mauritius, after reaching a peak in 2014, has since stagnated or has even been decreasing by a small but noticeable amount.
But there does not seem to be any concrete evidence to show that the main cause for this is the cost of tertiary education. The cause may lie elsewhere.
In fact, in recent years, there has been a consistent decrease in enrolment at all levels of education in Mauritius. From 2013 to 2017, secondary school enrolment decreased by about 3%, primary school enrolment by nearly 15% and pre-primary school enrolment by about 13%.
These decreases in enrolment can be explained by the fact that there has been a very marked reduction in the birth rate in Mauritius, from 16.7 per 1,000 population in 2000 to 13.0 in 2017.
Entrance to tertiary institutions is assessed mainly on the results obtained in the Cambridge School Certificate (SC) and Higher School Certificate (HSC) examinations. The pass rate in SC examinations has gone down from 75.1% in 2013 to 71.1% in 2017, and that of HSC from 77.9% to 74.4% over the same period.
The above figures seem to indicate that it is the reduction in the quantity and quality of students in the pipeline feeding the tertiary institutions that could be the main reason for decreasing tertiary enrolment. If that is the case, then free tertiary education may not have a significant impact on tertiary enrolment.
Who will benefit?
The new measure will apply to all students in public tertiary institutions, irrespective of their social standing.
At UoM, it is known that the majority of students come from middle- and high-income families who have attended some of the best secondary schools and whose parents have paid significant private tuition fees to ensure that they obtain good grades in SC and HSC examinations in order to gain access to a university in Mauritius or overseas.
It can be said that most of them can afford to pay university tuition fees. This situation prevails in most developing countries.
So, essentially, free tertiary education will not benefit those who are really in need, the students from low-income families who often drop out of school because of poor performance or having to work to support the family. A targeted approach aimed at providing support to those really in need and using affirmative action for admission to tertiary institutions would have been much more effective and less costly.
An irreversible decision?
Mauritius is a democratic country where a new government is elected every five years. In principle, any decision taken by one government can be reversed by another. However, providing free tertiary education is such an important social measure that no subsequent government will take the risk of overturning it.
At UoM, for example, several attempts have been made in the past to reintroduce tuition fees for undergraduate students. Such recommendations have come from both external advisers and internally from UoM itself. However, no government has dared to do so, judging such a decision to be too politically sensitive.
So, in effect, the decision will be irreversible. As the tertiary sector grows, as it should, the financial burden on government will be significant and may become unsustainable.
If the institutions are not provided with sufficient funds, this will have a negative impact on their quality, and also on research, which is often sacrificed when funds are scarce. Or, alternatively, any significant expansion will take place in the private sector. That, too, has implications for the country.
By introducing free tertiary education, Mauritius is embarking on an important social experiment and will be closely watched by several countries, including neighbouring South Africa, where the issue is currently being debated. It therefore behoves the country to take all appropriate measures to ensure the success of its implementation.
Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai is former secretary-general of the Association of African Universities, former president of the International Association of Universities and former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius. He is also on the board of University World News – Africa.