December 25, 2003

Europe Weighs the Unthinkable: High College Fees


Associated Press Thousands of students demonstrated in London in October against government plans to raise univeristy tuition to $5,000 per year. Other European countries are facing intense debate about similar plans.

LONDON, Dec. 24 Europeans, led by Britain, are rethinking their long-held belief that university education should be financed almost entirely by the state.

With costs rising, more students enrolling and universities lagging behind their American competitors, there is a growing sense that universities need to look beyond the government for money. In continental Europe, where universities charge either nothing or nominal tuition fees, governments are just beginning to talk about if, and how much, they can reasonably expect students to pay.

Here in Britain, which introduced tuition fees in 1998, Prime Minister Tony Blair faces a bruising fight next month over his government's bold and unpopular proposal to allow Britain's universities to triple their annual tuition fees, to 3,000 a year, or $5,300, starting in 2006.

The government argues that the move is essential if the country's universities are to remain internationally competitive. But Mr. Blair is confronting formidable opposition from inside and outside his party, as well as from student groups who say that the plan would discourage would-be students and contradict the deeply held believe that higher education is a citizen's right, as much as, say, health care.

"There's a long welfare-state tradition in this country in which it's assumed that taxation will fund all public services, including education and higher education," said Prof. Ivor Crewe, president of Universities U.K., an organization made up of the vice chancellors of 122 British universities, which supports the government's proposals.

That may have been reasonable when fewer Britons aspired to go to college, he said, but "it's quite different when 40 percent expect to go."

In a recent report, the European Commission said that European countries spend just 1.1 percent of their gross domestic product on higher education, compared with 2.3 percent in the United States, with the difference coming from private funding, including tuition fees. American universities also have higher endowments and better fund-raising operations, meaning that American universities have two to five times as much to spend on each student, according to the commission report. This translates into smaller classes, better facilities, a wider range of available courses, and higher-paid teachers.

"Countries have to get real about mass higher education," said Nicholas Barr, professor of public economics at the London School of Economics. "The way they've done it in mainland Europe is to cram more and more people in the universities without raising the financing per student."

In France, where undergraduates pay from 280 to 350 euros a year, or $350 to $435, to take classes in sprawling, chaotic universities, students recently took to the streets to protest against a number of proposed changes to the system that, they feared, would lead to competition between universities and pave the way for increased privatization and higher tuition fees.

In Germany, where undergraduate education is still free in public universities, a number of state governments have gone to court to challenge a federal law, passed last year, that forbids public universities to charge tuition. At the same time, impending budget cuts in state university financing have touched off student strikes and protests in Berlin and other cities.

"It is part of the Social Democrat ideology that one of the prime rights of humanity is to have a free university education," Toni Schmid, an official in the Bavarian education ministry, said of the German government. With about two million students, compared with some 200,000 in the early 1970's, Mr. Schmid said, the ratio of students to teachers at German universities is currently about 80 or 90 to 1.

Bavaria, which has to cut 5 percent cut from its higher-education budget of $1.86 billion this year, is one of the states suing for the right to charge tuition. "In Bavaria, there's a saying, `If it's free, it isn't worth anything,' " Mr. Schmid said. "Studying at university is very valuable, and we think it should cost something."

Under the British plan, low-income students would have access to scholarships and grants to help with living costs, and no one would have to pay the tuition up front. Rather, the fees would be handled as loans, which students would be required to repay only after after they have left school and begun earning about $25,000 or $30,000 a year.

Mr. Blair all but staked his job on the plan's passage. "It is a huge argument to make, and it is as big an argument as people made when they were founding the welfare state," he said earlier this month.

But students' groups are suspicious, saying the plan would deter poorer students from entering a university and lead to higher fees in future years, sending Britain down an American-style route of spiraling costs and debt-laden young people.

"I don't think anyone is in doubt that higher education is underfunded," said Dan Ashley, a spokesman for the National Union of Students, which represents student groups. "But we don't believe that asking the person who has the least the cash-strapped student to pay the most is the answer."

The British government and the schools say they have no choice but to pursue this course. The universities, which are receiving $14.6 billion this year from the government, need some $14 billion more over the next three years in order to maintain standards, Mr. Crewe said.

This is a time of rapid expansion in the student population, as Britons increasingly accept that higher education is not simply for the middle class. In 1985, only 14 percent of high-school graduates went to college; the figure is now close to 40 percent.

At the same time, physical plants are languishing; university departments are closing; and talented faculty members are being lured to the United States, where salaries are higher and research conditions more attractive. While British institutions produced 46 Nobel laureates in science in the past 51 years, according to the government, only 14 won in the last 20 years.

"Oxford and Cambridge are lagging behind, not in faculty quality, but in replacement," said Prof. David Hendry, chairman of the economics department at Oxford. "One worry I have about the system is that 35 to 40 percent of our top academics will retire by 2012, and there's nobody to replace them."

Oxford estimates that it loses about $4,000 per student per year and is running at a $40.5 million annual deficit, a gap it has filled by transferring cash from investments and other outside income. Undergraduates from outside the European Union pay $13,000 to $18,400 a year, depending on what courses they take. That range provides some insight into what the market would bear if the universities were free to set their own fees.

If objections to the proposal are formidable, many education experts feel it does not go far enough. Lord Butler, the master of University College, Oxford, recently suggested that tuition be at least $8,800 a year, while Sir Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial College, London, has suggested $17,600 to $21,000 a year.

The Conservative Party is fighting the plan by reversing its traditional free-market position and vowing to scrap university tuition altogether if it comes into power. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, favor raising taxes to close the financing gap.

More worryingly for Mr. Blair, 159 Labor members of Parliament signed a motion criticizing the plan this month, saying it contradicted Labor's fundamental philosophy. With a vote expected in January, it is unclear whether Mr. Blair will have enough support for his plan.

"Introducing a market into higher education is something the Labor Party should not be doing," Nick Ashley, a Labor member of Parliament who opposes the measure, told Sky News recently.

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