15 May 2018

‘Free’ higher education fails to boost quality or access

In a new paper, Dr Ariane de Gayardon shows that ‘free’ higher education does not improve degree quality or widen access to university.

Dr de Gayardon analyses the rationales behind free university tuition in a number of different countries. She shows that despite geographical and economic differences, free higher education tends to be seen as a right and a form of equal opportunity, and is often fiercely defended.

She highlights the fact that an equilibrium between cost, access and quality in higher education is difficult to achieve. As a result, reducing the cost of higher education creates challenges around access and quality.

Governments facing financing constraints are likely to limit access to higher education by restricting the number of students accepted free of charge. A reduction in government funding to universities would also have a negative impact on quality.

Dr de Gayardon shows that in many countries (e.g. Russia, Brazil, and Ireland) governments have had to establish alternative schemes to protect free public higher education and provide financial sustainability. Consequently, there is no indication that free public higher education is providing access to all and fostering student success.

Dr de Gayardon concludes that what is meant by ‘free’ depends very much on context, and the many realities behind the notion of free higher education highlight the difficulty in sustaining such a policy.

There is No Such Thing as Free Higher Education: A Global Perspective on the (Many) Realities of Free Systems is published in Higher Education Policy