UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Fall 2000
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The worldwide shift of higher education costs—
from governments and taxpayers to parents and students

By D. Bruce Johnstone
University Professor of Higher and Comparative Education and former SUNY Chancellor

igher education is experiencing a worldwide shift of cost burden from governments and taxpayers to parents and students. This shift can be seen in the very rapid increase of higher education expenses in the United States, as well as in the introduction of tuition where charging fees for public higher education has been heretofore unknown or politically unsupportable, as in the United Kingdom, China, many of the countries of Latin America, and most of the Socialist nations of the former Soviet Union and Eastern and Central Europe.

    The shift may also take the form of more nearly full cost recovery from formerly free or heavily subsidized room and board expenses, or of the shift in student financial assistance from grants to loans, as in the United States or the United Kingdom, or simply of the explosive growth in a tuition-dependent private sector, as in much of Latin America and Asia. This shift in the burden of higher education costs—sometimes referred to as "cost sharing," or a part of "revenue diversification"—is having reverberations throughout the world, as in (1) an increasing political backlash in the U.S. against mounting higher education costs and expenses, even though tuition—contrary to popular and journalistic belief—has not increased significantly in most state public sectors; (2) the advent of tuition, along with the phasing out of student grants, in the UK, as well as the grudging acceptance of tuition in the Netherlands and the speculation that it may soon emerge in Germany and elsewhere on the European continent; (3) the sudden emergence of relatively steep tuition in China and some other nations that still hold (at least somewhat) to a Marxist-Socialist ideology; (4) the heavy reliance on private, tuition-supported colleges and universities in much of Asia and Latin America; (5) the bitterness with which even a small tuition was resisted in Mexicoís National Autonomous University—even in the face of almost certain worsening austerity if government revenues cannot be supplemented; and (6) the emergence of private, tuition-supported colleges and universities in Russia, China and other nations that until only recently forbade both tuition and non-state universities.

    Cost sharing can be expected to meet resistance in countries with long traditions of free tuition. This resistance may include both students and families of privilege, who have been the traditional beneficiaries of this form of public largesse, as well as students and


families of middle and lower economic status, who may see these rising costs as another barrier to participation in higher education. In many countries, however, the absence of any tuition in public higher education may put even greater burdens on public treasuries, and may lead either to severe enrollment limitations (at least in the free or low-cost public sector), or to equally severe overcrowding and a loss of educational quality—in either case, to the greatest detriment of the "non-elite."

    Furthermore, a shift of some higher education costs to parents and students—supported by need-based grant and student loan programs—can actually serve the cause of equity (as in the notion that those who benefit should at least share in the costs), efficiency (the idea that the payment of some tuition may make students and families more discerning consumers, and the universities more cost-conscious providers), and responsiveness (as the need to supplement public revenue with tuition, gifts and grants may make universities more responsive to individual and societal needs). Thus, some increased costs borne by parents and students are probably both inevitable and economically rational, and may be an important solution to the worldwide problem of increasingly important—yet increasingly underfunded—universities.

    In response to this worldwide issue, the UB Graduate School of Educationís Center for Comparative and Global Studies in Education, with the support of the Ford Foundation, has initiated the International Comparative Higher Education Finance and Accessibility Project (www.gse.buffalo.edu/org/
). The project will (1) create an international database on the costs of higher education borne by students and parents; (2) examine models of tuition and aid policies for specific countries, and compare and contrast official policies, unofficial practices, trends and their consequences both to the financial health of institutions and to higher education accessibility; (3) document emerging solutions (e.g., loans, interest subsidies, means-tested grants, tax benefits, graduate taxes) to the access dilemma created by the shift of higher education costs to students and families; and (4) establish partner centers in a number of countries, beginning with China, Russia and South Africa, with the intention of bringing young scholars to Buffalo and to the Center for Comparative and Global Studies in Education to help the work of the project, and to help build greater analytical capacity in these and other countries.

D. Bruce Johnstone is the project director of the International Comparative Higher Education Finance and Accessibility Project. He is the author of Sharing the Costs of Higher Education: Student Financial Assistance in the United Kingdom, the Federal Republic of Germany, France, Sweden, and the United States (1986), and many other books, monographs, encyclopedia entries and articles dealing with international comparative higher education finance and cost sharing.

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