One of the things that various anti-tuition types like to point to in debates is the number of countries which have “free tuition” (by which they mean the user pays nothing and the state pays everything). If these dozens of countries can do it, the argument goes, why can’t we?
There are limits to this line of argument, as, on its own, it’s a variant of “my friends are jumping off a bridge, and I’d like to join them.” But perhaps these countries provide evidence which suggests that free tuition in some way “works”; if so, it would be worth taking a look at these countries.
And that’s where the problem starts. Free tuition genuinely only exists in a few places: Scandinavia, Greece and the Gulf Emirates. Most of the countries that people like to refer to as “free tuition” do in fact have fees of some kind – in some cases, quite substantial ones.
How do these countries appear to be “free-tuition” without actually being so? Here are a few tricks:
(1) Introduce fees which are not called “tuition.” French students pay a few hundred euros a year in these kinds of fees. In Ireland and Italy, the annual administrative fees are now up around 1000 euros. Ghana uses this ruse as well.
(2) Make sure the no-fees thing applies only to full-time students at mainstream universities. Ireland charges quite high part-time student fees. The French exempt Les Grandes Ecoles from tuition rules so they can charge several thousand euros per year.
(3) Introduce “dual-track” tuition. That is, keep tuition in public universities free for some students (usually the ones who score high on exams), while introducing high tuition for others. Poland is big on this approach – so too is much of Africa (e.g., Kenya, Uganda).
(4) Keep public universities small. This one’s a favourite across Latin America. Keep tuition free at public universities, but keep the supply of public spaces very small (because it’s too expensive to educate all those kids publicly), and limit them to students who do well in matriculation exams. Places like Brazil, Argentina and Mexico push around two-thirds of their students into private universities in order to keep the fiction of “free” tuition.
Options 3 and 4 in particular have appalling consequences. Kids from rich families who can pay for top-notch secondary education get free tertiary education at good institutions, while poorer students pay thousands of dollars for lower-quality private institutions. In much of the world, that’s the consequence of “free” tuition.
But, hey, as long as you can get some misguided adulation from Canadian free-tuition campaigners who can’t be bothered to check facts, I’m sure that’s good enough.