“Free” Tertiary Education: Is It A Priority Now?


In our present unequal society, free higher education will be unambiguously regressive. This is because it involves a transfer of resources from lower and middle to higher income individuals within the national population

By Rattan Khushiram

As regards the blatantly populist measure of “free” tertiary education, it would be more appropriate to quote the comments of Jayen Chellum, Secretary of the ‘Association des consommateurs de l’île Maurice’ (ACIM) who has summarised it so cogently:

“Le gouvernement juge qu’il peut décider seul pour le pays, étant donné qu’il a été élu. Le métro est l’exemple type de la manière de gouverner. Ce projet n’est pas basé sur une politique nationale de transport; il n’a pas eu l’apport des citoyens et ne touchera que les cinq villes; il a été exempté d’un permis EIA, donc nous ne connaissons pas l’impact sur l’environnement. De même, il y a des coûts cachés et il n’est pas totalement transparent.”

The same could be said about the latest of the populist policies of a regime in populist mode without properly assessing the pros and the cons of the measure. It is only now that the people at the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development are working out the costs to the public exchequer of this electoral bribe. Are there more to come? Quite possibly, because again this government – through measures such as the Negative Income Tax, or the increase in basic pension or the generous wage awards which are higher than the increase in productivity, the Metro Express, the Safe City project… and now free tertiary education – has demonstrated that it is not aware of the country’s priorities.

First, a small reminder: tertiary education is not free, it has an opportunity cost. The provision of higher education uses resources that could produce other things, so universities can’t be ‘free’. And if it is free to the users, this then must mean that it is financed by government — that is, by all taxpayers. The issue really is whether university services should be financed entirely by taxpayers and involve no specific contribution from the users of the system, who come from all layers of society, including a significant proportion of well-off people? And specially since these same resources are needed in other areas of the education sector – at the primary, secondary and vocational levels — for the poor and working class people who so often cannot pay their way to tertiary institutions.

Advocating ‘free’ universities is equivalent to supporting the transfer of financial assistance from the poor to the privileged. Actually those politicians advocating free tertiary education fail to provide a justification for the increased allocation of resources to higher education on the grounds of equity or social justice. In our present unequal society, free higher education will be unambiguously regressive. This is because it involves a transfer of resources from lower and middle to higher income individuals within the national population.

Second, given that the external benefits of many degrees – that is, benefits of an educated workforce accruing to businesses operating outside of the educational system — are presently limited, free tertiary education merely creates more unemployed graduates and will only increase the underemployment problem. Therefore, it is a mistake to continue to fund the public expansion of university education since the economy doesn’t need more graduates as much as other vocational skills. It will be a misallocation of resources to divert government spending to relatively expensive university education. Rather than fund 3-4 year long university degrees, government would be well advised to devote more funds to primary and vocational training, which is more relevant to the needs of the economy.

The priority of the moment is to devote higher public spending to tackle more basic skill shortages.

Indeed, can this be a priority when only a maximum of around 20% of a cohort of students reach SC and HSC? And 90% of these students are from well-to-do families who can afford to pay for tertiary education. Shouldn’t we be more concelrned about the remaining 80%? Are we doing enough for the latter? We are subsiding more of the rich when it is within their capacity to pay, and leaving the poor to fend for themselves. This is an elitist policy. It is regressive and socially unjust.

Why should taxpayers pay for the education of prospective lawyers, engineers, doctors…? The priority at present is to invest heavily in the vocational stream which must be linked upstream to higher education and industry training — like in Finland and in Germany where the apprentice schemes are linked to industries.

The university as it is now should be maintained with a lean structure catering only to those wanting to specialise further and do research. Our whole concept of further education should be redesigned into such modules and training that are linked to the vocational stream and are relevant for the country. If we continue with our university system as it is presently, we will only accentuate the problem – not a shortage of graduates with degrees, but a shortage of lower level vocational skills.

Many people who are now applauding this policy decision may be disappointed some years down the line because of the greater pressure that is being put on university resources. Already Government is finding it difficult to increase real spending for the universities. Ranking only a dismal 57th in the international listing of Africa’s universities, the University of Mauritius needs presently more resources from Government to upgrade its faculties to world class standards and to beef up its research. (The consultants Silke Blohm and Dr Simon Kerridge in their report have found the quality of the research at UoM wanting.)

Most of the universities are now expected to become increasingly professional and directed to generate results of value to governments and society, and more and more money is being spent to maintain international standards and quality.

With free higher education we stand the risk of chronic underfunding as other sectors compete for the limited resources. This is highly likely to continue as a major problem in the future if higher education is held to be nominally “free”. But if universities can charge students, it will help maintain standards, quality of teaching and the reputation of our universities.

Another sector that will also need more resources to meet the challenges ahead is Financial Services, especially in some of the niche markets that we can take advantage of to boost employment and growth. We have to make our graduates employable by professionalising some of their degrees. For example we have so many accountants graduating every year, but are we giving them the opportunity to specialise – for example in forensic accounting or wealth and trust management, re-insurance business…?

Instead of wasting some Rs 1 billion rupees to create unemployed graduates and encourage brain drain, the government could have invested it in a Financial Services Institute to address the growing gap between industry needs and human capital supply for this sector especially in the niche areas.

 …comme nous le dit si bien, Jayen Chellum, “Mais les grandes décisions se font par ceux qui gouvernent et ces messieurs du secteur privé. C’est le “public-private partnership” à la Economic Development Board. Le ‘social partnership’, lui, est complètement négligé.”

This populist policy, another electoral bribe without properly assessing the consequences, shows the irresponsibility of this government in its attempt to win over the electorate at any cost even if it means “une politique de terre brûlée”.

* Published in print edition on 11 January 2019

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