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Does free education guarantee accessibility to higher education?

On October 11, 2019, the Constitutional Council confirmed the duty of the French State in terms of free public higher education. This decision is based on the preamble of the constitution of October 27, 1947 which, in its paragraph 13, stipulates that:

“The Nation guarantees equal access for children and adults to education, vocational training and culture. The organization of free and secular public education at all levels is a duty of the State. »

In 1947, students in higher education represented a tiny minority of each generation, and the question was above all to ensure that each child could attend, without a scholarship, primary and secondary education, which was often provided nearby. . But in this paragraph, the Constitutional Council also reads that public education must be free at all levels, including after the baccalaureate.

This seems quite reasonable at first glance, since free access seems to be a condition to ensure accessibility for all. If this is true for initial training, nothing indicates that this would not be the case for continuing training. The first sentence of paragraph 13 seems to suggest this.

Public establishments should then deliver their programs for the unemployed, entrepreneurs and employees free of charge – even though the Ministry of Higher Education encourages them to develop their activity in this area in order to diversify their financial resources!

It is true that in 1947, continuing education for adults was underdeveloped and may not have been clearly identified by members of the National Constituent Assembly. On the other hand, it is probable that they wanted education, whatever the level, to be accessible to all.

Costs beyond tuition

Pursuing higher education represents a financial effort that often goes beyond tuition fees. For many students, there are also travel and accommodation costs which are often significant and which the grant scheme is not sufficient to cover. Free education is ultimately only one of the elements of its accessibility.

Conversely, the significant development of student loans (almost non-existent in 1947) proved to be a not insignificant springboard towards paid training, whether provided by public or private establishments. Along with reduced interest rates, they contribute to developing accessibility to higher education.

This is only partial, because banks generally ask parents to stand surety. It is then obvious that the accessibility of higher education is a lure for young people from modest backgrounds.

In reality, French higher education encounters many difficulties in complying with the preamble to the Constitution of October 27, 1947. The state of public finances makes it difficult to achieve the principle of free education in all training, especially if we want to guarantee real accessibility for everyone, regardless of their family background and geographical location.

In addition, the increase in the number of students each year tends to reduce the means devoted to each student, and it is the most vulnerable who are the victims. Relatively few young people from disadvantaged backgrounds enter higher education, and when they do, they fail much more often than others. We are far from the intention of the drafters of this preamble.

Australian model

However, some countries have found a way to meet this challenge: to be accessible to as many people as possible and to offer quality higher education for all. It is true that they are based on devices that emerged after 1947.

For example, since 1989, Australia has set up the system of loans with contingent repayment (PARC) which allows higher education to benefit from public funding supplemented by funding provided by the beneficiaries of the training. Australian students go to higher education without paying AU$1 in tuition fees, but once they graduate, if they find jobs that pay enough, they repay the loan they have been given.

Thus, graduates who do not find a good job, do not repay anything, and if their annual income is more than 45,881 AU dollars (27,987 euros), they devote 1 to 10% of it to paying off their debt, knowing that this percentage increases with income. As an advertisement claims, 100% of the winners played; but with this device, no one can lose. Hard to imagine better.

The model has proven to be virtuous for Australian students and for society as a whole. Since 1989, the country has experienced uninterrupted growth and a very low unemployment rate, in particular due to the positive impact of PARCs on the growth of human capital and innovation. The positive impact of education, and in particular higher education, on economic growth and competitiveness has been demonstrated in the article by P. Aghion, L. Boustan, C. Hoxby and J. Vandenbussche, and in that of Anna Valero and John Van Reenen.

Covered risks

The Australian model removes two obstacles to the financing of higher education by students:

  • the absence of security which allows all young people to benefit from the loans; it is provided by the state

  • the potential cash flow difficulties of borrowers, insofar as repayment is only taken when the income is sufficiently high, and for a limited fraction of it.

Thus, the maximum rate of income earmarked for reimbursement, 10%, concerns graduates who earn more than 79,300 euros (AU$130,000).

Prior to 1989, higher education was free in Australia. The observations carried out in particular by Bruce Chapman of the Australian National University show that the introduction of tuition fees, accompanied by a system of loans with contingent repayment, had no impact on the socio-economic mix of the student population, while the number of students has doubled, whether they are of modest or more affluent origins.

Australian universities have benefited from sufficient means to accommodate, in a qualitative way, a growing number of Australian students and have become very attractive for international students.

A recent study, on the case of England, which adopted the PARC model in 1997, when free admission prevailed before, comes to the same conclusions. The means allocated to each student have increased (which has made it possible to improve the quality of training) and the number of these has increased, without there being any change in terms of the proportion of students from disadvantaged.

New equations

Finally, free does not go hand in hand with accessibility and accessibility can be excellent, even if studies are paid for. For this last condition to be met, it is necessary, as in Australia, for the State to stand surety for student loans and therefore to assume the financial risk of the failure of graduates.

Finally, when free education induces mediocre quality, for lack of sufficient public financial means, the student increases his risk of failure during his studies and the graduate is not equipped to find a good job.

This is a question that arises in countries with fragile public finances, and which want higher education to be financed exclusively by public money. The absolute or relative impoverishment of higher education endangers young people and compromises the economic and social future of the country.

But this issue was not necessarily perceptible in 1947, otherwise the drafters of paragraph 13 of the Preamble to the Constitution might have written: “The Nation guarantees equal access for all citizens to education, to vocational training and culture. The organization of public and secular education, of quality and accessible to all, at all levels, is a duty of the State. »

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