Even free is not free enough — World Bank

This article in University World News reports on some statements by Francisco Marmolejo head of tertiary (further and higher) education policy at the World Bank. The headline idea is that in many areas of the world, free higher education does not greatly increase participation rates among the poorest sectors of society, and is ‘regressive’ — i.e. serves to consolidate wealth inequality rather than either overcome it, or increase social mobility.

There are a number of factors here: tuition fees are by no means the only cost incurred by a student. Obviously, there is the additional cost of living for 3 or 4 years. But more importantly is the cost of spending those 3-4 years not in employment. Where the employment prospects of graduates are very high, then all these costs become insignificant in the long run. However, this is determined not by higher education itself, but rather by the wider national economy, specifically the value placed on graduate-level employees, and the ability of bright young men and women from poor backgrounds to break into what high paying professions may exist. In many developing countries, it is simply not worth it for a young person and their family to make the sacrifice. Only the affluent can afford these costs.

But ‘regressive’? Marmolejo means that making higher education free for everyone leads to an under-contribution of the affluent to the costs of such education, relative to the benefits they receive. Whether his analysis is meant only to apply to developing countries (obviously the World Bank’s primary focus), or whether he would make the same claim more broadly, is not made clear. (The reporter clearly takes his claim in the latter sense, because it goes on to report on tuition fees in the UK and their rationale.) [UPDATE: Amazing how news stories kind of have a life of their own, spawning similar reflections half-way across the world. Here at the THE is a story presenting the evidence that, in the UK too, that background you bring with you to university determines the available career options after university. Specifically, that students with poorer backgrounds are excluded from access to the most lucrative careers. Just like Mexico, according to the World Bank.]

The piece also makes the observation that the very existence of Marmolejo’s role at the World Bank is a departure for the organisation. Previously, the WB had focused exclusively on primary and secondary education; only recently has its activity suggested that higher education is now part of its remit.

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