Students: Cash cows or a nation’s asset?

Nieuws | de redactie
30 januari 2012 | In times of economic crisis European policymakers increasingly shift HE financing burden towards students. Allan Päll, chair of the European Students' Union, criticizes this approach saying that public investments into higher education are part of the solution, not the problem.

Higher education has not escaped the current austerity drive,and perhaps unsurprisingly so.

Cuts in public funding of higher education institutions,down-scaling of student support, the introduction of or increase intuition fees (although sometimes under the mantra “no payment atthe point of delivery”), limiting the number of foreign studentseligible to apply – all of these have been the first basicreactions.

At the same time, few would disagree that higher education mightprovide a way out of the crisis.

Perhaps things are not that simple, but we are in a crisis thatis essentially a crisis for the welfare society and the welfarestate. The problem for governments lies in structural factors inpublic budgets that drive up debt, creating a vicious economiccircle.

Public HE spending did not create EU debtcrisis

Funding of education is hardly a cause of structural debt andthere is plenty of proof around to back arguments for moreinvestment. But higher education is rarely a fiscal priority,especially when the solution seems to be ‘the student’ or ‘thegraduate’ and where public investment can easily be turned into aprivate one.

Numerous cuts in public funding of higher education in a varietyof European countries show that the idea of public investment inhigher education as part of the solution to the crisis is not anappealing policy in practice.

It is true that some European countries have committedthemselves to additional investment, but they are either a minorityor this is just a surface claim since cuts are being made at theother end of the spectrum as they are in Germany, where at thefederal level there is investment in higher education but whereindividual states have a different political logic.

Students pay the bill

But most importantly, one cannot doubt that there is increasedpressure on students to co-finance a bigger part of their studies.We are not talking only about the tuition fees that have beenrising, but also about student support and various support servicesthat have seen cuts.

Students and their families are being asked to bear a biggerburden when it comes to higher education. Some governments evenseem to be in a race to set records for fees. A fee of £9,000(US$13,800) was certainly inconceivable in Europe a few years ago.Perhaps there comes a tipping point where cost-sharing becomes aburden on students or graduates.

Although the immediate impact might be a drop in applications,as has been shown in the case of the UK this year or in Sweden whenit comes to international students, it is unlikely that highereducation will lose its appeal. That in itself might be part of theproblem – just about everybody now believes that higher educationwill yield guaranteed individual benefits.

Towards an Americanization of European universityfunding

The indication from the United States, however, is that thefinancial burden and loans that students have to bear if they wantto get quality education are becoming too large, and this alsoimpacts on the capacity of graduates to gain access to otherfunding, like credit for starting a business or buying a home.

We have observed the student protests in Chile, where studentshave said they have had enough and are demanding free public highereducation instead of an elitist approach where higher education isonly accessible to those who have enough money.

We have also seen protests in various European countries likeSpain, with students fighting for the future and being angry aboutbeing forced into debt at the beginning of their adult lives, andabout unemployment.

There is still no answer to the problem of how to balance thepublic budget in relation to the massification of higher education.Past decades have seen a rapid rise in the number of students whilepublic investment has struggled to keep pace in many countries.Arguably, we have been witness to a fall in the quality of highereducation.

International students mistaken for ‘cashcows’

Countries and institutions have turned more to the privatepurse, especially in those places where this has seemed an easiersource of funding than attracting additional funding through usinginternational students as ‘cash cows’. At the same time, they haveforgotten that there is an unrealised potential in their owncountries as many people are still unable to benefit from highereducation because they simply cannot afford to study.

Organisations like the OECD, which are also advocatinginvestment in higher education as a way out of the crisis, are nowalso looking at this untapped source of potential. It might costour societies much more in the long term if we do not bringunder-represented groups and untapped potential into highereducation.

These calculations link gross domestic product growth directlyto this question. One could indeed ask governments to prove howcutting public funding of education will increase the long-termgrowth rate. It seems that when it comes to the long-term potentialof higher education there is still a lack of evidence-based databeing used in policy-making.

On the other hand, seeing students as the solution to thefunding issue by asking them to pay has not been fully explored.What are the long-term effects of this in relation to thechallenges Europe faces, such as the need for greater innovation insociety or our increasingly ageing populations?

What will happen when we have more and more graduates and whenthe personal financial benefit gained from university study becomesmore difficult to measure as higher education is no longer seen asa privilege for the few. It seems there is a disconnect betweendifferent policy goals.

Long-term HE investments in place of short-termactivism

For students, these disparities are creating many tensions andare having an impact on their everyday lives and futurechoices.

We are also seeing that governments, such as in Hungary, aretrying to tie public investment in higher education to the questionof nationalism in their desire to stop students going abroad aftertheir studies, by asking those who do to pay back the ‘cost’ to thestate in the form of full tuition fees.

That raises questions about European solidarity and its approachto the so-called crisis.

It seems that at a time of crisis the benefits to society thatare directly related to higher education have been forgotten. Thisis a very disturbing trend and worries students greatly.

How do we build trust in our governments if they cannot solvethe crisis and make cuts without those cuts leading to long-termchanges that make our societies sustainable?

Our role is to convince governments of the evidence showing thebenefits of higher education, but also to make the moral case forinvestment. Students have been outspoken about these issues and Iam certain that student protest and unrest will continue in2012.

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