All the really interesting news about tuition these days is happening south of the equator–let’s catch up.
Chile. When last we checked in on things in Santiago, we noted how President Bachelet’s gratuidad program had kind of foundered on the rocks of reality. Having brought in free fees for the students in the bottom six income deciles at a cost of 607 billion pesos (roughly $1.25B Canadian), it turned out that the additional cost to make education free for the top four deciles would triple the cost. So they stopped. And things looked to be at a dead end because all the polls showed the left-wing Bachelet government being replaced by a right-wing one led by former President Sebastian Piñera which was anti-gratuidad (Chilean Presidents cannot be re-elected, but they can leave for four years and come back again, which leaves us with the very real possibility of a Bachelet- Piñera -Bachelet- Piñera sequence).
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Pinera coronation: the first round of voting turned out to contain a few surprises. Mainly, these involved the main left-and-right wing parties both losing votes to a new far-left party. Piñera is still the favourite for the second round this weekend, but he’s scrambling: and in fact announced last week that he wasn’t just in favour of gratuidad; he’s actually in favour of extending it to all but the top decile though only for students in institutos tecnologicos (roughly our equivalent to our community colleges). Elections make people do odd things.
New Zealand. And speaking of elections, the September election in New Zealand eventually – after some coalition-negotiations that dragged on into October – resulted in a change of government, with Labour’s Jacinda Ardern becoming Prime Minister. Among her promises: the return of free tuition to New Zealand (it was a Labour government of a much more free-market hue that introduced tuition back in the early 1990s). And none of this Ontario/Chile/New York free-fees-for-some stuff: no, this is full-on we-don’t-care-how-regressive-it-is free fees for everyone.
It’s apparently going to be implemented in stages over a few years, but the first stage is now set to be in place for January 1st – all new students studying at what is known universities, polytechnics, wānanga, private colleges – if the course is publicly subsidized – apprenticeships and other industry training (well, technically it’s only those studying at something called “certificate level 3” and above, but this blog’s too short to get into the ins and outs of the New Zealand Qualification Framework so let’s just say “all” and be done with it because, you know, close enough). In total, that’s about 80,000 individuals set to benefit from the new policy.
It will of course be interesting to see the effects of the elimination of tuition: after all, New Zealand already had a pretty impressive tertiary attainment rate. Most of the coverage seems to focus on young people talking about how happy they at the prospect of lower debt (students still borrow for living costs, so it won’t be eliminated entirely), and how they will be able to “concentrate on their studies”. Expect some interesting studies over the next couple of years examining how that’s going.
South Africa. Back a couple of years ago, South African campuses were aflame – in a couple of cases literally – about the #feesmustfall movement. Broadly speaking, you had a youth movement massively disenchanted with and disenfranchised by the ANC facing off against the obviously corrupt government of Jacob Zuma, and fees were as much of an excuse to organize as they were an actual bone of contention.
Still, following the strikes of 2015, the government put together an expert panel that was supposed to tell them whether or not free fees was economically feasible. This is a really bad way to frame the question – free is always possible – it’s just a question of trade-offs. Which in South Africa, with it myriad other urgent needs, is a big question. Still, the commission came back with a report providing the answer one might expect – free fees are a bad idea, but hey, here’s a mix of need-based aid (free fees for the poor, better student loans for everyone else that might work).
The report is mostly pretty sensible though some of its ideas about loans seem a little off: the authors want income-contingent loans financed/managed in part by the private sector, and while there’s a case for both those things individually, in practice the two don’t work together. Meanwhile Zuma’s decided it’s better to ignore the expert advice and play populist and told his new finance minister Malusi Gigaba to give the students what they want. That led to a fight with the Treasury, which thinks the plan both financially irresponsible (the estimated cost is in the range of $3 billion range) and regressive, and to the resignation of the country’s top civil servant in charge of the budget, who thought free fees for university while a quarter of primary schools lack running water was kind of mad. But in the fight to save Zuma’s presidency amidst mounting scandal allegations (check out reviews of Jacques Pauw’s new book The President’s Keepers for a good, quick take on these), no bribe is too much. We’ll soon see how they plan to pay for this: Gigaba’s first budget is expected in February.
Australia. This one’s maybe worth a full column on it’s own in the New Year, but long story short: it’s a total mess. The Liberal government hasn’t had a majority in the Senate since it was first elected in 2013 (the balance of power is held by a gaggle of small parties and independents) and that means big policy changes require big compromises, which its education ministers seem congenitally predisposed to avoid. So first they were going to de-regulate tuition, but that failed twice in the Senate. Then they were just going to cut the daylights out of the higher education budget, but they haven’t managed to get that through either. Basically, there does not seem to be any policy on fees or funding which commands a majority in both the House and the Senate, so the system is more or less stuck in neutral at least until 2019 when the next election is due. Maybe longer.