I’ve written a few times over the years about the spread of Targeted Free Tuition (TFT) programs. Starting in Chile and Ontario in 2016 (after a false start in the UK in the late 1990s), they have started to spread around the world. There are three new spots where the program is either now in place or under consideration, so I thought I would keep you all up to date on its spread.
South Africa. You may recall that back in early December there was a wrangle between the under-fire President, Jacob Zuma, who wanted to pander to students by giving them the zero tuition fees they were pushing for, and the claims of many people in the education sector who said this simply wasn’t affordable. When the universities announced an 8% fee increase for the coming year (less than 3% after inflation), Zuma imposed what is effectively a Targeted Free Tuition scheme – tuition was made free for families earning under R350 000 p.a. (call it C$35,000, give or take), and tuition was frozen for those making R600 000 or less (there was also a package of other measures which largely involved converting loans into grants). Since South Africa is not a particularly wealthy country, it’s not clear how sustainable this is since it would cover a very high proportion of students: even the avowedly Marxist vice-chancellors (viz. Witwatersrand’s Adam Habib) have been publicly saying that this raises questions about sustainability. That said, the fact that Zuma chose to go the TFT route rather than a blanket free tuition route suggests the idea that fees need not be free to all in order to improve access.
Japan. About nine months ago, I wrote about how Japanese PM Shinzo Abe was trying to use free university tuition as a lure to get voters to back his quest to re-write the constitution permitting Japan to have its own armed forces (it has a “self-defence force,” which resembles an army/navy, but constitutional niceties matter to some). During this year’s election campaign, the ruling Liberal Democrats promise to make tuition free to low-income students attending “national” universities (meaning public schools supported by the national government in Tokyo) through scholarships equalling tuition. This is an important caveat because only about one in five students attends a “national” university, with 90%+ of the rest attending private universities (implicitly, because national universities are prestigious, research-intensive and hard to get into, there is a merit-test on this money). It’s still not entirely clear how this scheme will work – there is still some discussion about tying the funds to particular fields of study and to academic performance. There is also discussion about extending the program to private universities after 2020, which would be a more expensive undertaking.
Italy. Somewhat under the radar, Italy has come up with a Targeted Free Tuition program, which went into effect this fall. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to explain because, well, it’s Italian and there are aspects of that system which are pretty inexplicable. But basically, if you ignore a couple of mandatory “right to education” and “application stamp duty” fees, tuition is now free for students from low-income families across the country. The actual threshold varies from one region to another. The national minimum is €13,000/year, but regions can use their own funds to boost it: in Bologna the threshold is €23,000 and in Trento it is €26,000.
So, from humble beginnings in Ontario and Chile a couple of years ago, we now have a system which is starting to circle the globe. It’s basically a high-tuition/high-aid system, but with much better PR and as such is winning adherents across four continents. I’m pretty sure it’s the wave of the future. The question in Canada, I think, is how quickly the idea catches on in the other eight provinces.
This is not an idle question: it’s budget season and there are four provinces that could move in this direction relatively quickly if they wanted to. In Quebec, Newfoundland, and Alberta – all of which currently have tuition freezes – governments could all choose to adopt a TFT plan while simultaneously allowing tuition for those above the threshold to rise. In all cases, between the income raised from tuition and the potential savings from other programs – especially the super-generous Alberta education tax credits – this move to TFT would effectively pay for itself. Free education to the students who need it most, at no cost: why wouldn’t a province do this? Especially purportedly left-of-centre ones like Alberta’s and Newfoundland’s?
A fourth province – Manitoba – couldn’t quite do it for free, but it did save millions last year from axing an overgenerous education-related tax benefit and could easily choose (as New Brunswick did) to reinvest the cash in a targeted benefit. Total cost, as I outline back here: a mere $14 million out of over $50 million saved through the axing of the graduate tax credit. It would be an interesting chance for a Conservative government to outflank a provincial New Democratic Party whose central policy proposal in PSE right now is to bring back the old tax credit.
All four of these provinces could put themselves at the forefront of this global movement, if they so chose. Let’s hope they do.