1 June 2018
by Ariane de Gayardon

What free higher education really means (and doesn’t mean)

Free tuition policies might appear to alleviate student debt and create more access to higher education, but the reality is a far less equitable system, says Ariane de Gayardon in Times Higher Education.

Whether or not higher education should be free is a recurring debate the world over, but recently it has intensified and has led to surprising policy changes in many countries, including Chile, New Zealand, and the Philippines. The debate usually emerges because of high tuition fees and growing student loan debt. In a context where higher education is becoming increasingly expensive – to the extent that students and their families have to take on high amounts of debt to be able to afford it – free-tuition public higher education seems like a perfect and simple solution.

Governments in many countries face financial challenges, which, if the state were the only stakeholder, would prevent adequate funding of large-scale higher education. Despite this fact, however, it is interesting to see that the idea that university should be free has endured and is regaining strength. Several ideological positions account for the survival of this ideal and for the recurring demand that higher education be free.

First, a country that offers free tuition is one that emphasises the public good created by higher education. It recognises that individuals educated to tertiary level bring benefits to an entire society. Such benefits include, but are not restricted to, economic growth, higher productivity, more active citizens and happier communities.

Second, many consider that higher education is a right and, as such, all barriers to access, including financial barriers, should be abolished. Third, students are not fully informed consumers and cannot make a rational decision based on the little information that they have. Governments, on the other hand, are fully informed of the benefits of having a tertiary-educated population and so should be facilitating this.

Last, but not least, the importance of equality of opportunities in the free tuition debate can never be understated. The main reason that students demand free higher education is their perception that financial barriers to higher education create profound inequities in societies.

The realities of free tuition systems

The reality is that many higher education systems around the world operate within the framework of free-tuition higher education. An estimated 81 countries offer some type of free tuition, mostly located in Latin America, Northern Europe, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, as well as in North Africa. However, what these countries mean by “free” differs widely.

Few countries offer truly free public higher education to all their secondary-educated population. Scandinavian countries do (although in some cases this has recently been restricted to domestic students only), as do Argentina, Germany and Cuba. But in many countries the reality is otherwise.

Many countries adopt schemes to create an illusion of free higher education while controlling the cost to the government. These schemes include charging a non-tuition fee (such as in Ireland); creating dual-track systems where, in the public sector, the best students only are given a free place while others have to pay (Russia, for example); and restricting the size of the free public sector while allowing private sector expansion (such as in Brazil). In all these cases, free-tuition higher education is either just a façade or a reality that only applies to a minority of students – with merit-based selection meaning that free tuition benefits mostly the wealthiest.

Access and success

Under these conditions, it is no wonder that countries with so-called free tuition do not have consistently better access and success in higher education than countries without. Participation levels seem to be more correlated with a country’s level of development and with cultural expectations than with tuition fee policies. It is also difficult to draw conclusions about the link between free tuition and graduation rates, with a notable absence of convergence among countries with free higher education. Overall, countries with free-tuition policies seem to be experiencing the same problems as others, sometimes to a worse degree, in guaranteeing university access and success.

The lesson here is that free-tuition higher education is not a miracle solution. Observations from all over the world tell us that it is a policy that hides many realities and fails in systematically providing better access and success than tuition fee policies in other countries. Even worse, in some cases, equity is at stake: the wealthiest students benefit most from free public higher education – through meritocratic access policies – while poorer students are crowded out to the private sector. In other cases, quality is an issue, with underfunded public universities. Free higher education might be worth pursuing as part of a strong set of access-related policies, but alone it does not guarantee improvement and could even cause damage to the system.