Free education? That only helps the rich

LondonProtestsStudents295LONDON | After as many students as police officers on Wednesday ran through the British capital’s central postcodes complaining against tuition fees, we were left wondering that perhaps future and present university pupils aren’t exactly worried about the financial effort necessary to access higher education. The less than 4,000 protesters sought to convince the Liberal-Democrat and Conservative Coalition government led by David Cameron to reverse the trend of increasing costs from £3,000 up to £9,000 per year of full-time study.

Protesters in the streets of London were clear in their demands, with abundant ‘Scrap Tuition Fees’ and ‘Free Education’ placards, but the demonstration offered a poor image (or “it’s been a bit rubbish,” as one asset manager who works in the City’s headquarters of a mutual fund put it on his Facebook wall). At the University of London, teachers reported police presence at the entrance while student union members gathered and called on their classmates to attend the march.

This recent research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, though, seems to settle the question on the side of those who decided to remain in their classrooms and let the lectures progress as scheduled. According to an analysis of the consequences of Ireland abolishing all fees for undergraduates in 1996,

“The potential role of tuition costs is important because it is an instrument that governments can manipulate”


“The results and these robustness tests demonstrate clearly that the policy of abolishing university fees did nothing with regard to improving access to university amongst low Social Economic Status students which was a stated objective of the policy.”

We should bear in mind that most low income students in Ireland would typically not have been paying university fees since most would be in receipt of the Higher Education grant, so one would not expect a reform which largely benefitted better off students to somehow benefit low SES students. Even so, the paper

“finds that the reform clearly did not have that effect. It is also shown that the university/SES gradient can be explained by differential performance at second level. Students from white collar backgrounds do significantly better in their final second level exams than the children of blue-collar workers. The results are very similar to recent findings for the UK.”

The educational immobility between generations in Ireland is excessive when compared to many other countries: a cross-country study of inter-generational educational mobility using data on OECD countries in 2009 concluded that the association between education levels of individuals and their parents was highest in Ireland. Investigations, the IFS says,

“would tend to suggest that it is long run factors that are important and hence changes in tuition costs are unlikely to be important.”

This is not to imply money does not matter in general.

“A review of US studies, by Deming & Dynarski (2009), finds that financial aid to students can be effective at increasing participation at (and retention in) university depending on how the programme is designed. So it is far from clear, a priori, what to expect from the abolition of university fees and it will, in general, depend on local circumstances and institutions.

“The reform also clearly generates a deadweight loss: individuals who were willing to pay for an investment now benefitted from the investment at the taxpayers’ expense. An argument in favour of the policy that has been made was that the fees acted as a barrier to individuals whose parents’ income was just above the threshold to qualify for the Higher Education grant, largely from low income white-collar backgrounds. Raising the threshold would obviously have been a more efficient solution to this problem to the extent that it existed.”

Cancelling all university fees does not, by itself, enhance the possibilities nor the outcome of young people from low-income households on their way or already in higher education.

For young people from a low SES background in Ireland who wish to progress to university the dice are firmly loaded against them. They will, on average, perform much worse in school and this is why they are less likely to be successful when it comes to attending university. The extent of this disadvantage may have lessened somewhat in recent decades as the supply of places in higher education has risen considerably. Hence policies that do not directly address the underperformance at secondary level (i.e. high school) are unlikely to have a major impact on the problem.”

Most of those thinking about enrolling on undergraduate programmes in the UK see something is amiss in the student unions’ strategy. They and their supporters need to come up with a more coherent plan, specially in an economic environment in which public spending has to be reigned in.

About the Author

Victor Jimenez
London contributor at, reporting about the City and the Eurozone economies. He regularly writes for Spanish newspaper group Prensa Ibérica--some of his features include shared work with journalists of The Daily Telegraph and the BBC.

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