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What can we learn from other countries about abolishing tuition fees?

  • 11 March 2019
  • By Alison Kershaw

In this guest blog, the education journalist Alison Kershaw writes about what she has learnt about abolishing tuition fees during a stint in Chile – and what it could mean for plans to do the same back at home in England.

In 2011, just months after students in England took to the streets to protest against plans for a  tuition fee hike, their Chilean counterparts began similar action over public education.

While the protests in England proved futile, in Chile, they contributed to a step-change in university funding. 

In 2013, President Michelle Bachelet of the Socialist Party was voted to power with a manifesto that included a pledge to introduce free tuition – “gratuidad” in Spanish, initially to 70% of students, and then to all by 2020.

The policy was introduced in 2016, but has not been without teething problems.

Indeed, the current Chilean system provides food for thought for the UK, giving indications as to the issues politicians could find themselves grappling with if there was a move to cut fees.

Much like Labour’s plan to pay for axing fees by raising taxes on high earners, President Bachelet intended to fund gratuidad, along with other policy initiatives, through increases in tax revenues.

But the reforms failed to raise the amount needed to fully implement the proposals.

In a paper on Chile’s university system, Andrés Bernasconi, Professor of Education at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and director of the Center for Educational Justice, explains that falls in the price of copper and slowing economic growth created a somewhat different fiscal picture.

Rather than retreat entirely, the Government pushed ahead, altering the proposals to make gratuidad available to the 50% poorest students in the first two years, determined through means-testing.

It has since been extended to 60% of students, and theoretically, could one day still be extended to all.

What we can we learn from this?

As Prof Bernasconi suggests, if you’re going to make a pledge to scrap fees, make sure it can be funded.

If you want to reduce, as in the case of the UK, you want to reduce the amount that students are charged, then you really need to be sure that the money is going to be there to support that policy over the next 10 years, because then increasing tuition again, once you have decreased it, it’s very complicated.

There is also the political impact.

Without a doubt, scrapping fees is a popular move – a win for students who will benefit from a reduced debt burden and a win for the politicians responsible for lightening the load.

But it is a double-edge sword. 

After all, even if it proves expensive for the public purse, who would want to be the minister responsible for reintroducing fees?

Free tuition is “very sticky”, Prof Bernasconi says, “it’s very hard to remove it.”

Politicians may also want to talk to university leaders before setting the costs – it is likely that they will have a different idea about the amount of money necessary to teach an undergraduate.

And for how long do you fund a student?

In the UK undergraduate courses are typically three, or four years. In Chile, five years tends to be the standard.

But, it is also the case in Chile that many students fail to complete their course within the expected time, Prof Bernasconi notes.

For how long are you going to be paying tuition for a student if the student is going over the theoretical duration of the programme?

There are students starting university unprepared for degree study, Prof Bernasconi adds, forcing institutions to spend time “levelling them up”.

And a student who, for example, fails two courses in their first semester is then likely to be a year behind in their programme, he says.

“The government said, back at the beginning ‘we’re only paying for the theoretical duration of the programme’.”

There are now undergraduates who are likely to be left without gratuidad in their final years due to taking longer than expected to graduate, leaving universities, and students to deal with the cost, Prof Bernasconi says.

While in the UK, most students do finish within the expected time, this is an issue that needs considering.

For example, how do you fund students who switch degrees after one year? 

Should they effectively get an extra year’s worth of free tuition?

UK politicians looking at free tuition schemes may also need consider questions such as how you decide which universities and colleges are eligible.

For example, should for-profit private institutions be allowed to take part? 

And should institutions meet a particular teaching requirement? Could the Teaching Excellence Framework be used?

In Chile, institutions seeking to take part in gratuidad need to meet certain accreditation criteria, including being non-profit.

Discussions on this issue are ongoing. 

The Chilean experience teaches us that cutting fees comes with a pay-off.

In England, the tuition fee hike came with a move to lift the student number cap. 

In Chile universities which take part in the gratuidad scheme can only raise student numbers by 2.7% a year.

Common sense suggests that it is not possible to have both free tuition and unlimited student numbers.

Which leads to the law of unintended consequences.

A cap on numbers is a restriction on how many students can study for a degree.

How do you ensure that all students have a fair chance of attending?

Some researchers suggest that if gratuidad is one day extended to all students, it could have an impact on fair access.

Wealthier students are more likely to be better prepared to get good scores on the PSU – Chile’s university admission test – giving them a higher chance of getting a place.

Ariane de Gayardon, senior research associate at UCL’s Centre for Global Higher Education, who is investigating the issue hypothesises:

Because the government can only pay so much, it would crowd out the poor and low income students.

It’s not as such because they’re poor, but mostly because they’re not as well-prepared, which is linked to the fact that they are from poorer background.

Gratuidad is only in its third year; the long-term impact is hard to see.

But it is already clear that UK politicians considering a similar move would do well to consider the experience of Chile.

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