​The global case for free education

In a world in which the ever-rising cost of university tuition is the trend, only a handful of nations provide higher education for no, or exceptionally low, fees. These models are various and not without their own problems.

Locally, students continue to disrupt the academic year with an unwavering demand for free higher education. This week, clashes between police and students continued for a second week in a row at the University of the Witwatersrand. Clashes also occurred at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, which last week announced a fee hike of 8% for “rich” students, in line with the fee increase the government has prescribed.

The fees commission, established in January to look into the feasibility of free higher education, is finishing the second part of an eight-part investigation, scheduled to be complete in May next year. But the worsening situation saw the establishment of a ministerial task team on Tuesday to try to normalise the situation.

Some of the Nordic countries are commonly singled out as examples of nations that provide free tertiary education.

In Finland and Sweden it is enshrined in their Constitutions. But these are developed nations, economically prosperous, with some of the highest levels of taxation on income (up to 57%) in the world.

But some of South Africa’s peer developing nations do provide free, or almost free, university education. These include Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Turkey.

In its submission to the fees commission, Equal Education, a community and member-based organisation, singles out Brazil as an example of free education worth studying.

The Brazilian government wholly funds its public universities — the federal universities — which are more prestigious than the private for-profit universities.

The University of Sao Paulo ranks in the top 300 universities in the world (higher than Stellenbosch University), according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2016-2017 list.

The Brazilian government also runs the Programa Universidade para Todos (Prouni) — the University for All programme — which offers full or partial private university scholarships to students whose family income is less than 880 real (R3 900) a month.

Since 2007, the Fundo de Financiamento ao Estudante do Ensino Superior allows students with a higher family income to receive low-interest loans to cover private university tuition.

“Data shows that there is a direct correlation between funding education and decreasing inequality in Brazil, as well as economic growth,” Equal Education said in its submission. But it also acknowledged there is inequality in Brazilian higher education, which is rooted in the failures of the basic education system, similar to South Africa’s case.

Children from wealthy families are sent to superior private primary and secondary schools and so are better prepared for the college entry exams and university-level work.

A larger proportion of these students are admitted into the federal universities and those with inferior schooling are left behind.

To remedy this, the Brazilian government has directed universities to set aside a minimum of 50% of its positions for students coming from public schools — “a complicated form of affirmative action that utilises race and class as proxies for inclusion”, Equal Education said.

Nico Cloete, the director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, said Brazil offers free higher education in the public universities but the government’s investment is not that high — about 1% of gross domestic product (South Africa’s is relatively low at 0.71%). This is because “these institutions enrol less than 25% of students, with the remaining 75% enrolled in mostly low-quality, nonresearch private universities,” he said.

Equal Education said funds need to be injected into the South Africa National Students Financial Aid Scheme, “or a new institution similar to Prouni should be created to provide bursaries for low-income students, not based solely on meritocracy”.

Argentina and Mexico
In Argentina, free higher education has been in place for a century. But research by Alieto Aldo Guadagni at the Academia Nacional de Educación found that, because there are no scholarships for students from low-income families to cover the associated costs of attending university, far fewer of these students — just one in eight — are enrolled in Argentinian universities.

None of these institutions are among the top 800 universities on the Times Higher Education list.

In Mexico, public universities are dependent on state funding and tuition is free, although there are administration fees. For an undergraduate student, this comes to between R5 000 and R12 000.

Lyal White, the director of the Centre for Dynamic Markets at the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science, said, although these Latin-American examples have a budgetary allocation to cover free education, their quality does not rate well internationally and the top-class universities and facilities are being eroded.

“These universities have 300 000 to a million students, and are huge and sometimes poorly run and maintained.”

The result is a large, paid-for, private university market, which is now world-class, he said.

The higher education system in Turkey relies heavily on state funding.

Turkey’s ambassador to South Africa, Kaan Esener, said the funding of higher education in Turkey is complex because of the mix of state universities, private institutions and so-called foundation universities (established in the 1980s, which are nonprofit).

“The state universities are huge,” Esener said. “Some of them may get budgets larger than ministries. They are funded totally by the state.”

The score achieved in a national exam — equivalent to the United States suite of assessments (SAT) exam — determines whether a student gains a place at such a university.

Half the students get scholarships and the others pay tuition fees. “But what you pay is a very small amount,” Esener said.

According to information published on gostudyinturkey.com, in 2012, the fees for undergraduate degrees at state universities in Turkey ranged from 190 to 591 Turkish lira (R890 to R2 750) and private university fees started at 12 000 lira (R56 000).

Private universities, on the other hand, can be expensive, Esener said. “But even those private universities are required to provide full scholarships for at least 50% of the students.”

On top of this, he said, the state lends students money, about R400 a month, if they cannot afford the basic expenses related to attending university.

Public universities are also tightly controlled by the state, which keeps costs in check. Critics have raised concerns that this jeopardises the academic freedom at these institutions, which are prone to being used as instruments of national policy.

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