Free tuition flips on and off the political agenda

With everything that happened in 2020, it is not surprising that debates concerning the cost of higher education were subdued. The free tuition movement that developed between 2016 and 2019 has stalled, a logical outcome to a year of health and economic hardship. And the year 2020 will certainly have economic repercussions on higher education for many years to come.

Yet, in some countries, 2020 was also an election year, bringing with it promises and disappointment around free tuition higher education.

The United States

In the United States, free tuition was an important topic during the Democratic primary. Two front-runners, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, strongly supported free tuition for all. In 2020, however, Joe Biden was chosen as the Democratic candidate, a candidate whose position on tuition fees was less vocal. His platform, however, includes making community colleges free for all, as well as support for free four-year colleges for low-income students.

His vice-president running mate, Kamala Harris, was not a supporter of free tuition. Her campaign platform, however, included the plan to make four-year institutions debt-free, and, as a senator, she co-sponsored the Debt-Free College Act.

While these ideological debates were still raging during the primaries, the issue of tuition fees came to the foreground as the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to on-campus instruction for spring 2020. Students rebelled against the idea of paying full tuition fees for online courses that they deemed of lower quality, to little effect.

Even with instruction resuming on-campus, the long-term economic crisis that might result from the pandemic will keep the issue of tuition fees on the political agenda. The affordability of four-year institutions will be questioned again as families affected by the crisis have fewer financial resources, changing enrolment patterns and student college choices.

In this particular context, the support of now president-elect Joe Biden for free community colleges and free four-year institutions for students from families earning less than US$125,000 will be a welcome improvement to the current system, ensuring that low-income students, including those whose families were negatively impacted by the pandemic, have access to higher education.

Pending a few improvements, such as swapping the strict parental income cut-off for a fade-out rule, Biden could secure an important political win for the Democrats.

New Zealand

By contrast, New Zealand’s new free tuition scheme took a hit in 2020, despite an election year in addition to exemplary management of the pandemic. In 2017, New Zealand’s Labour government introduced a ‘fees free’ programme, which eliminated tuition fees for first-year students, with the target to expand it to the second year if re-elected in 2020 and to the third year in 2024. However, the expansion to the second year was absent from the 2020 Labour political platform.

Several reasons can explain this position.

First, due to their successful control of the pandemic, the Labour Party was assured victory and probably did not need the political gains from free tuition promises.

Second, the evaluation of the free first year showed disappointing results, including disproportionate benefits for rich students and a failure to boost enrolment.

Third, the Labour Party replaced its original expansion to the second year with a fee-free programme for apprenticeships, in effect choosing to target low-income students through post-secondary vocational training.

The politics of free tuition

Highlighted in International Higher Education 100 was the fact that the free tuition movement is above all else political, with free tuition promises making their appearance on campaign platforms or before potential re-elections.

This is reiterated with the two examples above: free tuition higher education is on the agenda in the United States where elections were disputed, while it is no longer part of the Labour platform in New Zealand, where victory was certain.

The case of New Zealand also shows that, despite its initial appeal, free tuition often fails to fulfil its promises and is an expensive policy.

This reality has been felt in many countries recently. For example, Chile is no longer expanding its free tuition policy to more students or more institutions in the face of budgetary constraints and political disinterest. Similarly, Ontario terminated its free tuition programme for low-income students in an effort to cut the deficit.

These examples show that the cost of free higher education is hard to justify in view of its limited benefits, leading to short-lived or restricted policies. The free tuition movement that started in 2016 in Chile, and brought a number of countries onboard in the following three years, faces an uncertain future.

The future of free tuition

At the beginning of 2021, it is hard to see where the future of the free tuition movement lies. While it remains a powerful tool in the belt of would-be presidents, the economic crisis stemming from the pandemic could severely restrict higher education’s budget.

Higher education has never been a top priority for governments, but the years ahead will certainly see more emphasis placed on economic recovery and health than any other sector. As a result, it is hard to foresee more countries implementing free tuition for all.

However, with low-income households being hardest hit by the pandemic economically, it might also be the right time for governments to consider targeted free tuition.

This is what Biden proposes through free tuition at community colleges and for low-income students – following the example of Italy, New Brunswick and Japan, to name a few.

Targeted free tuition would be an efficient use of the scarce resources devoted to higher education that could prove particularly useful while the world is recovering from the pandemic.

Ariane de Gayardon is a researcher at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies, University of Twente, the Netherlands.