Against the international trend, Germany has announced it will abolish tuition fees and higher education will once again be free for its citizens. Could the same happen in Australia?
In a shortlived experiment, Germany’s public universities - funded by state (Länder) governments - introduced fees in 2005. But as early as 2008, following public outcry, individual states started backtracking. The last two of the Länder still levying them will phase them out this year.
Fee-reversal could happen in Australia. We have only one government funding 37 public universities, compared to Germany’s 16 Länder funding more than 100. But perhaps the question for Australia is: should higher education be free?
The UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights supports the implementation of free higher education on the basis that higher education should be equally accessible to all. But free doesn’t necessarily mean equal.
What’s the point of having a free education if only a few can access it? Or if the quality of higher education is sub-standard? On the other hand, what if a country charges high student fees, but ensures that anybody needing financial support gets it?
Australia’s history with free higher education
Serious attempts to support poorer students into university began in 1944 with the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. As well as ensuring people had jobs in the post-war economy, it was a deliberate social engineering attempt by the Curtin-Chifley government to encourage people from working-class backgrounds – mostly men - to study.
Prime minister Robert Menzies expanded the system into the merit-based Commonwealth Scholarships scheme. Between this and state-based teachers’ scholarships, a majority of university students from the late 1950s to the early 1970s did not pay fees. However, the overall student demographic remained urban, middle class and white.
When Whitlam made education free in 1973, it still didn’t help many more students from more diverse families go to university, though mature-age women did benefit. The practical difference under Whitlam was offering income support for students. The introduction of HECS in 1989, however, shared the cost of higher education more evenly between government and the student.
Australian higher education is now fairer and more accessible than it was previously. Nonetheless, participation is still unequal for many groups of Australians, such as for Indigenous, regional and disabled students.
A comparison of higher education systems
A comparison of OECD data shows Australia compares favourably to other nations, with an above-average participation rate of 38%. Compared to other fee-charging nations, our government contributes well under the average of $12,298 and student fees are about $700 more than the average. Only 3% of Australian students receive fee support, compared to the average of 29%. However, that does not take into account HECS-HELP, which allows the student to defer payment of fees until he/she is employed and earning a relatively decent wage.
Eight of the 22 countries analysed (selected based on whether sufficient data is available) provide free higher education. Their governments invest on average $14,387 per student per year, compared to an average of $13,094 for all countries. On average, 30% of their population has a tertiary qualification, compared to 32% for all countries analysed. These countries provide free higher education for their citizens without making it too exclusive, nor dramatically increasing public expenditure.
It is not possible to directly compare access for disadvantaged students as there is no universal definition of “disadvantage”. However, the overall participation figure does give an indication of how likely it is that disadvantaged students are gaining access.
While this data shows it is possible for a government to provide free, quality, mass higher education, it also suggests higher rates of participation are only possible with a co-contribution from the student to offset the cost of providing more places. In Australia’s case the government could be contributing more and the student less.
The future of free higher education in Australia
A return to free higher education would come at great cost, as it would involve dismantling the immense structure and economy of HECS-HELP, which have been in place for a quarter of a century. In contrast, Germany has managed to return to free education in great part because tuition fees were relatively low (about $1,500) and introduced only eight years ago.
For Australia, abolishing HECS would involve the same scale operations as abolishing the GST. And making it free might even increase inequality, if the supply of university places was limited in order to pay for it. Free higher education might be desirable but fair and equitable higher education is essential.