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Global trends in tuition fees and student financial assistance: Indications of stability (for now)

Despite dire economic news from around the world in the last couple of years, a new study from the Toronto-based consultancy Higher Education Strategy Associates (HESA) has found that a significant number of countries neither increased tuition nor reduced student financial aid for higher education in 2010 or early 2011. Tuition Fees and Student Financial Assistance: 2010 Global Year in Review, provides a birds-eye view of policy trends in 40 very different countries across the globe. This group of nations – dubbed the “G-40” by the study’s authors – represents some 90% of global [higher education] enrolment and 90% of global research”, providing a meaningful (if not exhaustive) picture of worldwide tuition fee and student assistance developments.

The overall results of the analysis appear to be decidedly “status quo”. Nearly 75% of those G-40 countries that already charged tuition fees kept their fee rates the same in the period under discussion (although this figure drops to 65% if the two countries that introduced fees applicable only to international students are included in the analysis). Meanwhile, more than half of the countries examined in the study kept the same levels of financial assistance for students, and some 35% “increased their aid or introduced new programs” perceived to reduce financial barriers to higher education. On a continuum of good to bad news for students and families shouldering the burden of increased fees and/or decreased financial assistance, there are winners and losers in the group. For example, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand all registered “major cuts to student financial assistance” (although no increases in tuition), while the Netherlands and the Canadian province of Alberta showed both small increases in tuition and decreases in student aid. Among the lucky ones, Chile, China, Germany, India, Japan, Nigeria, Russia, and Spain all saw small increases in student aid in a context of no rise in tuition fees. In Australia there was even a “significant expansion of… student aid programs”.

The report openly acknowledges some fundamental limitations. The data represent a snapshot from 2010 and early 2011 and do not take into account known changes on the horizon, including for example the hefty tuition fee increases that will soon come into effect in the UK. Likewise, the aggregate picture does not always reflect the actual impact of policy changes on individuals, not all of whom are affected by programmes or regulations in the same way. Furthermore, there is no systematic examination of the effects of inflation or the evolving cost of living in each country looked at in the study. What the authors do state unequivocally, however, is that fees are generally on the rise, in a context where, globally, the “trend towards more private investment in higher education continues unabated”. And the effects of these developments on access to higher education around the world should be carefully monitored.

Higher Education Strategy Associates