Funding and equity principle: Who should pay for higher education?

by Farzana Haniffa

The education debate in Sri Lanka today, especially as it pertains to higher education (HE) is fraught and confused. On the one hand, we have arguments that universities cannot accommodate all who apply for entrance and therefore should be expanded by the private sector. On the other hand, state universities are allegedly producing graduates who are not employable and therefore syllabuses and approaches should change. This discourse also frames Arts students as no good lay-abouts who sponge off state money and only do politics. Today, the Treasury is holding back committed funds to state universities and cutting the HE budgets. State universities are also told to absorb more students without greater investment, and generate funds by carrying out fee-levying courses.

It is becoming clear that the state is trying to distance itself from funding HE. Under this project we are hearing flimsy arguments about the returns on investment (ROI) for HE being less than that of secondary education. (Flimsy because the premise is questionable: the investment in the education sector overall is abysmal; to talk about ROI in an underfunded sector speaks to a manipulation of percentages that is disingenuous.) Additionally, there is a strong private sector push to open the HE sector more fully to private capital investment. In all of this noise, the fact that Free Education system in this country is based on an equity principle, and further, that a large percentage of our student body continues to consist of those representing a struggling middle class and the poor seems to be lost. This piece will situate the attempts by the state to defund universities in relation to the HE funding debates elsewhere

The United Kingdom’s (UK)s story of ending free HE, and the crisis that has emerged as a result, may be instructive for policy making in Sri Lanka. From 1962 to 1998 HE in the UK was free for citizens. In the 1990s, the labour government shifted the HE system from a non-fee levying system to one where nominal fees were charged. These “nominal” fees were increased periodically, and today at 9250 GBP per student, per year, is one of the highest in the world. Most students pay through debt and interest rates for student loans were set each year at a maximum of Retail Price Index (RPI) plus 3%. Currently given high inflation, there has been a cap on interest rates on student loans between 6.25% and 7.3% depending on the plan.

A 2018 report commissioned by the National Bureau of Economic Research argued that, in fact, the twenty years during which fees were charged, actually saw positive trends in quality, enrolments and equity (Murphy et al 2017). The report suggested that the higher fees, as well as the fact that fees, generally paid through loans, only became due after students started earning and after a certain income threshold was reached, was friendly to low-income communities and ensured equity. Fees made more money per student available for the universities to spend (unlike when the treasury allocated funds allocations), thereby ensuring quality. During the time that fees were increased there were record numbers of students entering university and thereby a key argument made in support of fees, that it would stop institutions capping student enrolment numbers, was validated.

By that time however the UK’s own public sector was reporting that their debt driven fee-paying system was leaving low-income students 55,000 GBP in debt at graduation. The debt needed to be paid soon after leaving college, over 30 years or earlier if income permits, and was tied to graduate earnings. The nature of the debt and payment process was such that most students were unable to pay back the loans), prompting many to argue that the scheme was ineffective. In 2022, the payment period was extended to 40 years and the salary threshold at which payments started was lowered. The architect of the scheme Andrew Adonis, Education advisor on the Blair cabinet, had in fact called for the cancelling of the scheme in a Guardian article of 2017. Adonis called the loan driven fees system a Ponzi scheme that was loading students with debt that they may never pay back and the government in turn was recovering very little of. It must be noted that the fee raises were also carried out in the midst of massive student protests.

More recently, in 2023, the UK press reported yet another budgetary crisis in UK HE. This time it has been revealed that UK universities are finding it difficult to sustain themselves due to rising costs, brought on by falling numbers in the enrolment of international students. Brexit, and current immigration policies complicate this picture further. A (reluctant) conversation about greater state support for education is emerging. Even the Financial Times, a capital friendly publication, has pointed out that UK state support for HE is half that of Germany.

The learning for us from the UK’s policy incoherence is that if states are not clear on the goal of HE, the quest for funding will lose sight of why universities exist – to equip a country’s future generations to function at their fullest potential. Burdening students with debt to ensure the existence of educational institutions is not a good way to achieve this. Further the planned exploitation of international students seems to be a particularly irresponsible and capital friendly way of bridging funding gaps. The jury is still out on how the UK will sort out its problems. Corbyn’s labour party campaigned on a position of scrapping fees.

In the United States (US), fees for HE have increased across the board by 69% since 2000, far in excess of inflation. In the US model, students pursuing 4-year degrees attend either the expensive private colleges, the less costly state colleges, or opt to attend a university in one’s home state where state residents have a fee advantage. The less expensive community colleges offer two-year associate degrees. The growth of the US colleges from their inception in the 1700s had certain proclivities towards equity that shaped the HE landscape in the country. Fully state-funded institutions were never part of the model, although various attempts at equity were periodically undertaken, targeting World War II veterans (1944) and low-income students (1965). Colleges also offer financial aid in the form of scholarships and loans. Student debt in the US was at one trillion dollars in 2020. Large numbers of students from low-income and middle-income backgrounds have been straddled with unsustainable debt. The Biden administration is currently engaged in providing debt relief to households earning less than 125,000 USD per year. In 2021, Brookings Institute published an article titled Is free College a good idea? Increasingly, evidence says yes (Harris, 2021).

What are we to learn from the experiences of the above countries? In the British case it seems clear that shifting the funding burden onto student fees has not worked. The universities are unable to maintain their own budgets due to inflation and rising costs and are exploiting international students, charging them three times as much as local students’ fees. They have also overburdened lecturers with larger classes, greater involvement in administration and exert pressure on them to acquire research funding. This has led to the current staff strikes across the UK university system demanding better pay, pensions and working conditions. The UK’s dependence on international students has proven to be unsustainable. When Sri Lanka advertises widely for international students it will be good to keep this grave problem in mind. Before spending precious advertising money, it would do us good to think about whether international students would, in fact, opt for an expensive education in Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan university system is facing a deep funding crisis. Universities are being pushed to generate funds. The goal is to slowly transition into a system that is funded purely by student fee payments. Such a system is under pressure in the very countries that we are trying to emulate and has been a burden for the economically marginalised. Therefore, it behoves us to think deeper about the basis on which our education system has been formed and to push for greater attention to equity in policy. Our universities are already serving the poorest segments of the population, offering them a chance at social mobility. Let’s not lose sight of that larger picture as we hastily try to emulate models about which we are not well-informed and which are themselves facing crises at this moment.