Only way is down for state funding, think tank warns global academy

Public funding for higher education among members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development may have reached its peak, according to a study published today.

February 16, 2011

The report, Tuition Fees and Student Financial Assistance, by Canadian think tank Higher Education Strategy Associates, looks at data from what it terms the “G-40” of higher education – 40 countries that account for more than 90 per cent of global enrolments and research output.

It found that, even in countries where public spending on higher education has not been cut, increased private investment “continues unabated”.

“Government support to higher education generally seems likely to decline, meaning that the system will come under greater pressure to extract revenue from students,” the report says.

Despite this, the think tank found that in 2010, tuition-fee levels remained static in nearly three-quarters of the 32 countries that charge them.

Of the nine countries where fees rose, more than half increased student aid at the same time.

Only the Netherlands and the Canadian province of Alberta – where fee levels are set locally – cut student aid while increasing fees.

But the report says that students in Pakistan, Thailand and the Philippines, where fees remain stable but student aid has been cut substantially, face the greatest increase in barriers to education.

“Governments may believe that holding the line on tuition fees is a way to keep higher education accessible,” the authors write. “However, holding the line on tuition while reducing direct aid to the poorest is in fact a highly regressive policy that above all benefits the affluent.”

Australia is singled out for praise as “the one country where policies around affordability are changing on the scale necessary to affect outcomes”.

Brazil, too, receives kudos for its efforts to expand the public university system.

“As a result, even with no change in fee policy, a greater proportion of students are paying lower fees which, on aggregate, is equivalent to a reduction in tuition,” the study says.

The think tank suggests that policy analysts should look to the higher education sectors in the Philippines, Thailand, California and the UK as test cases in greater cost sharing, and says that if the slated reforms “take place without major disruptions to accessibility or to institutions themselves, they may act as models for emulation”.

However, it adds a warning: if these systems are shown to have made the wrong calls, “they will serve as tales of a much more cautionary variety”.

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