Who Should Pay For Education?
Imagine you’ve just been invited to the wedding of a close friend. You’re looking forward to the celebration. Maybe a little nervous. And perhaps slightly concerned about the expense: None of the clothes you own are really suitable, so you’ll have to buy a new outfit—and, of course, a wedding present. You might also have to pay to get there. Still, when the big day arrives you are excited and pleased. Only when you arrive at the ceremony you find you are expected to pay for admission. And when the meal is served, you are expected to pay for each course and each drink.
That’s what going to university can be like in much of the Arab world, with students getting unexpected bills for an event they expected to be free.
Bassem Youssef recently wrote a satire about Ismail, a medical student in Cairo who finds that beneath the promise of free public education lurks the reality of charges to students for private tutors, test preparation—and, if they are medical students, even access to patients. Without such payments students are likely to fail. Mark Bray, the author of a UNESCO study, also wrote about what he called “the shadow education system” that causes Egyptian households to devote more than 60 percent of their education spending on private payments that run alongside so-called free public education. While such a system provides income to the tutors, it also widens the gap between those who can afford to pay extra charges and those who can’t. And when publicly employed teachers also moonlight as tutors, the suggestion that those who don’t pay the teacher are going to flunk can make such payments seem like bribes—undermining confidence in the entire education system.
So who should pay for education? The answer to that simple question exposes the history, prejudices and social attitudes of each society. It also reveals an underlying, emotional debate—whether the responsibility for paying for higher education should fall on students and their families or on governments. (In the earlier years, schooling is widely regarded as a universal right that should be free.)
In England, even early education was the prerogative of wealth for centuries. Throughout the middle ages the nobility educated their children at home. At the same time the church, needing to perpetuate itself, organized schools for religious instruction. Church-supported schools such as Winchester, Eton, and Westminster trained promising young scholars for ecclesiastical careers. But from the beginning these schools also took a certain number of wealthy students who paid to receive their instruction alongside the scholars, in public (hence the name “public schools.”) Today about 7 percent of British children under 16 are in fee-paying schools.
In the United States, where state-supported universal education has long been the rule, only 2.6 percent of students attend secular private schools (though religious or “parochial” schools, most often associated with the Catholic Church, educate a further 8.7 percent of students in grades one to 12.)
Finland, the country whose students consistently come at the top of the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA—a set of standardized tests in mathematics, reading and science administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to 15-year-olds in 65 different countries—has virtually no private schools. (The four Arab countries who participated—Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia and the UAE—all finished in the bottom 20).
Many explanations have been offered for the Finns’ success—and that of other high-performing countries such as Switzerland, the Netherlands, Estonia, Korea and Singapore. (See a related article “Lessons From Finland: A Conversation with Pasi Sahlberg.”) But one common element is the view that education, whatever its benefits to individual students, is primarily a public good. In the Scandinavian countries this means that the goal of a well-educated population is shared by the whole society, who seem to happily pay the high taxes needed to fund world-class education, up to and including free university tuition. Even in Singapore, which has some of the highest rates of private tutoring (after school hours) in the world, there is widespread acceptance of the high levels of public investment required to build a knowledge-based economy.
On the other hand, the view of education as primarily a private good—something that, like a new pair of shoes or a bicycle, mainly benefits the individual—can be seen in U.S. university education, where elite institutions such as Harvard or Stanford rely on wealthy donors and star professors to deliver high-quality education. It would be a mistake to assume too much thought in the design of higher-education funding in the U.S. But the premise appears to be that while all Americans who graduate from high school are entitled to (and deemed capable of) a basic level of higher education, anything beyond that level is optional (and not the responsibility of the taxpayer). This isn’t an indictment of elite universities—who often provide generous financial aid to students from low-income backgrounds. But the society as a whole clearly views top-quality higher education as a luxury good whose primary beneficiary is the individual student.
A different kind of conflict can be seen in parts of Western Europe, where the theoretical right to universal free university education is all too frequently contradicted by the reality of chronically under-funded higher-education institutions that, though open to all, ultimately operate by failing a majority of students who enroll. (In France, for example, half the undergraduates either drop out at the end of their first year or have to repeat the year. Only 40 percent of enrolled students go on to receive a bachelor’s degree after four years.)
The Arab world shares many of these problems—beginning with a lack of consensus on whether education is a public good that should be funded by the state. In Morocco, as in many Middle Eastern and North African countries, the right to education is enshrined in the constitution. Recent attempts in Morocco to increase the funding available for higher education by introducing tuition fees have been highly controversial. (See related commentary: “Moroccan Higher-Education Institutions Must Begin to Charge Tuition.”)
The confusion over whether university education is a public or private good has effects that go beyond finances. In Jordan, for example, university admission depends on how a student performs on the Tawjihi—a national high school exit exam. Students rank their choices for universities and areas of studies, with only highest scorers getting their first choices. As a result, a student who wants to study a popular field, such as business or medicine, may end up assigned to majors that have little to do with their abilities or aspirations. Egypt, Syria and Tunisia all have similar systems.
In all of these countries, students who fail to gain admission to the public, subsidized program can get access what in Jordan is called the “parallel program”—a set number of places within the university accessible only to students able to pay substantially higher tuition fees. A researcher at the Stanford Graduate School of Education found that nearly half of the places at the University of Jordan now go to students in the parallel program.
“I wanted to study pharmacology but I could not due to my marks in Tawjihi,” said Amer Al-Masri. “And as I could not pay the fees of parallel program I joined biology.” The pharmacology program at the University of Jordan, a public institution, costs $15,196 for five years, while the parallel program costs $27,3533 for the five years. Biology, on the other hand, will cost just $4,829 for four years.
Meanwhile government spending on education in Jordan has dropped as the role of the private sector has increased. Currently government subsidies make up just 20 percent of university income.
“Poor students are obliged to enroll in inexpensive programs, which are usually humanities and social sciences,” said Mohammed Attia, a former public-university professor. As a result many of these students have difficulty finding jobs after graduation.
This mismatch between education and employment was one of the points emphasized by the World Bank in “The Road Not Traveled,” a monumental 2008 study of education policy in the Middle East and North Africa. The Arab world has made enormous progress—in part through spending a higher proportion of its gross domestic product on education than countries in East Asia or Latin America. But the report said that “the pattern of spending favors children in families of higher social class, who are likely to send their children to university.” Additionally, it found that the policies of guaranteed public-sector employment common throughout the Arab world had “negative side effects.” Guaranteed government jobs helped to create forms of higher education that did not correspond to real economic needs, including private-sector needs. Guaranteed government jobs also cut demand for vocational education, since students assumed they would get government jobs with higher social status.
The World Bank proposed that after years of Arab investment educational systems through building schools, training teachers, and expanding capacity what’s needed now is reform of incentives—for students and also for educators—and above all an increase in public accountability. Citizens should know when education is succeeding and when it is not.
But before that can happen, there needs to be much more debate on who ultimately benefits from education—and who should pay the bills.
Resources related to this article:
Who Should Pay for Higher Education, an opinion article in The New York Times by Howard Cohen, the chancellor of Purdue University Calumet, in the United States. Mr. Cohen notes that U.S. students are taking on more and more of the financial burden of paying for their higher education, and also eloquently describes both the personal benefits of education and the broader social benefits of having an educated populace.
International Institute for Educational Planning is an arm of UNESCO created in 1963 in Paris, to strengthen the capacity of countries to plan and manage their education systems.
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) collects, analyzes and makes available data related to education in the United States and other nations. Researchers and journalists can use its International Data Explorer to find out about the knowledge, skills, and test results of students around the world, although often the information is presented in comparison with the United States.
The Programme for International Student Assessment is a triennial international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. Only four Arab countries have participated so far: Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates.
* This article was supported by the U.N. Democracy Fund and was prepared in preparation for a series of workshops to encourage Arab journalists to write about education.