Free Tertiary Education for All: A Blunder


By Rattan Khushiram

I was astonished by the overall positive response to the free tertiary education measure announced with pomp and audacity by the regime without prior consultations and planning. Even opposition politicians were quick to say that they approve the principle that tertiary education should be paid for everyone but disapprove the government’s approach towards its implementation.

Two previous education ministers have supported it and one even went to the extent of opining that “si le gouvernement avait à cœur de garantir l’égalité des chances à tous les jeunes, il aurait étendu la gratuité de l’enseignement supérieur également aux établissements privés.” And the icing on the cake was the public spat of the Chief Whip of the governing party qualifying the ones against the free tertiary education measure as “a mafia operating against poor people”.

Really, in this elitist education system of ours, who are the poor ones? Where do we find them? Is it at university level, in the vocational schools or among the unemployed? No, certain people may not be able to catch these subtleties, the rather rhetorically tortured concepts of the pro-poor political narrative. They may find it difficult to make out that the whole educational reform is a farce as we cannot go about it on tiptoe, piecemeal and haphazardly while avoiding to challenge the status quo.

Perhaps if we strip the arguments about the artifice of the social divide or the emotionally charged political mumbo-jumbo, they would stand a better chance of being heard and understood. Thus, in plain and simple language and backed by recent evidence on the issues of funding for higher education, our arguments against the free tertiary education measure are as follows:

(a) how can the government provide free higher education to students given its significant costs? How will it finance this project? Government can increase taxes or, as it has done recently, by not fully reducing fuel taxes (despite a worldwide fall in fuel prices), or by reducing wastage and cutting down on other non-priority projects. We’ll soon come to realise that Government cannot meet the increasing demands of higher education for funds for new infrastructure, new technologies, upgrading the teaching faculty, new curriculum and courses, research…

(b) Why is it that when the fiscal authorities in a country are short of revenue they simply cut down on the allocation to post-college education – universities as well as technical and vocational colleges? This happens because universities and other tertiary education institutions are not an important constituency in the competition for resources.

(c) Why is it that in many countries, especially in the East Asian economies, eager to catch up on the middle-income and higher middle-income countries, they have started charging tuition fees for higher education? That’s because over time there has been a problem of chronic underfunding, a fact which has been recognised by free education activists. This is highly likely to continue as a major problem in the future if higher education is held to be nominally “free”. Ultimately, the quality of education will become even worse than it is currently on a general scale. Solid financing is the backbone of a well- functioning, quality-conscious, higher education system. We cannot have high quality education by relying solely on the public purse: this is a reality that must be reckoned with.

(d) What about equity of access for the poor and lower middle class? Politicians advocating free tertiary education cannot provide a justification on the grounds of equity or social justice. Last week, universities in England were reporting on how they have diversified their student populations. These reports show some universities having more than 52% belonging to ethnic minorities and the fastest growing population of low-income students. Thanks to the tuition fee regime, widening participation programmes are now delivered at every single university.

An enlightening conclusion of these reports: “…if you abolish tuition fees you also abolish the cash that provides the means to support low-income and underrepresented students. And there is scant evidence that higher fees have deterred less-advantaged young people.”

For those who are below a certain income level and cannot afford the tuition fees of tertiary education, there are different schemes available for them. Many countries use a fairly effective comprehensive package of strategies and instruments to promote inclusiveness, namely fee deductions and exemptions for the poor, an effective mix of loans and scholarships, the expansion of the student loan scheme with a grace period on interest rates for the duration of courses, and a block on early repayment and a maintenance grants, etc., to the poorest learners. These schemes do give a powerful message that the government wants these students to go to university and significantly reduces the strain on them.

It may also be noted that free tuition fees for both poor and rich has the potential to undermine the persistence of students in their academic studies as the financial incentive to finish what they started has been removed.

Finally, why push more students to tertiary education when they are likely to join the increasing number of unemployed graduates who are facing all kinds of difficulties to find a job, even a temporary one, because their qualifications do not match the level of skills required in the job market? Is this a priority when our country is suffering from a shortage of skilled and semi-skilled workers? Vocational and trade schools should also be part of the education reform plan to incentivize education. Some specific jobs are experiencing exceptional growth rates. But the skills required for most of these jobs are taught at vocational schools – not at three- to four-year universities. And these offer high-growth careers that are reached by an alternative to a purely academic college education. These are the priority areas where government should be re-allocating its resources.

If government is sincere in its efforts to ensure more equitable access to higher education, it should be spending more money on primary and secondary education with a view to supporting a higher transition of college graduates to tertiary education. We are instead putting the cart before the horse. Let’s first of all ensure that with greater efficiency of expenditures and a strong sense of priorities in government spending and with some private finance leveraging, for the primary, secondary and vocational levels, we are able to provide a larger and talented potential pool for tertiary education, both academic and vocational, and skilled workers for the world of work. That’s the challenge of the moment.

To conclude, the following lines from an article titled ‘Cut tuition fees and you shut the door to poor students’ by Anne-Marie Canning (director of social mobility and student success at King’s College London) in The Guardian of Sunday 22 January, would be most appropriate:

“When the fruits of higher education are fairly distributed, I will be happy to see a free system. Until that day, tuition fees are a smart and socially just way to ensure the widest range of students.”

* Published in print edition on 25 January 2019

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