I’ve had occasion recently to take a deeper look at higher education in a couple of Arab states, and one system I’ve found to be especially fascinating is that of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Jordan is a middle-income country (gdp/capita = $12,000 or so), but one with a lot of problems on its hands. Not only is it dealing with a multi-million refugee flow from neighbouring Syria, it has also lost a huge amount of remittance income as low oil prices have hit the Gulf. So there isn’t a lot of money for higher education: in fact, public expenditure on higher education is only about 0.3% of GDP, which makes it one of the lowest-spending governments in the world as far as higher education is concerned (the Gulf States are lower but they are spending off a much lower base and of course are only concerned with educating a small fraction of their population).
So you’d kind of expect higher education there to be a shambles. Except it’s not. It has participation rates that are right about average for a country at that level of development. Compared to most OECD countries, it is heavy on science and technology programs – its distribution of students by field of study looks more like Korea or Germany than it does like Canada or France. Among Arab countries it has a relatively high research profile and almost alone among countries with GDP/capita under $15,000, it places two universities in the Times Higher Education top 800 rankings.
How does it manage all this? Simple: tuition fees.
All Jordanian student pay tuition. Under the restrictive way students enter university, the students who do best on their high school exams get their pick of programs at the more prestigious public universities at below-cost rates (about US $1650). Poorer performing students simply get assigned to wherever there is space. If they don’t like it and want to study something else, they have to pay a higher price (often around US $4000) at public universities, or they head to one of the private universities (between $4000 and $5000). Add all this together and what you get is a country which devotes a little over 2% of GDP to higher education in the form of tuition fees. That puts Jordan in some pretty rarified territory since only Chile and South Korea have ever hit this level (both are slightly lower than that today). And in total it means that the tertiary ed sector in Jordan receives about as much in GDP terms as Canada’s does.
Total (Public & Private) Spending on Tertiary Institutions, as a Percentage of GDP, selected countries, 2011 or latest
Now, what’s a little odd about the Jordanian system is that it has achieved this while keeping the higher education system mostly in the hands of public universities. There are private universities but they only educate about a quarter of all students – in both Chile and South Korea, private institutions educate about 80% of tertiary students. So Jordan is somewhat sui generis as a developing country where public universities are essentially privately funded.
It’s also sui generis in that it has no functioning system of student aid beyond a few scattered scholarships. All these costs are being borne directly by families, without the help of any student loan program or system of fee waivers for poorer Jordanians. Although there are no studies on how this situation is affecting access to Jordanian universities, it’s reasonable to assume that the barrier is a pretty severe one and that the system as a whole would be much better off with a decent system of loans and grants.
But of course that would mean making new government investments in an area which allows the cost burden to be shifted but doesn’t directly help universities. And universities keep clamouring for more money (as they usually do). That may seem a bit ungrateful in a country which is among the world leaders in university income, but of course since they operate in an international environment, they are paying world prices for scientific equipment and libraries, and above-the-odds in local term for academics as well. Simply put, 2.4% of GDP doesn’t go as far in Jordan as it does here. And so they clamor for more.
Jordan’s going through a rough period right now and the likelihood of a lot more public money showing up anytime soon is pretty remote. So development, if it occurs, is going to have to happen through judicious management of what effectively is a system entirely dependent on fee-paying students, just like South Africa and Chile did.
It’s an experiment that bears watching. And it’s another reminder that in some contexts at least, tuition fees are what create educational opportunities, not deter them.