Does free education guarantee the accessibility of higher education?


On 11 October 2019, the Constitutional Council confirmed the French State’s duty to provide free public higher education. This decision is based on the preamble of the Constitution of October 27, 1947, which in paragraph 13 states that:

“The Nation guarantees equal access for children and adults to education, vocational training and culture. The organization of free and secular public education at all levels is a duty of the State. “

In 1947, students of higher education represented a tiny minority of each generation, and the main question was to ensure that every child could attend primary and secondary education, which was often provided in the near future, without a fee. . But in this paragraph, the Constitutional Council also reads that public education must be free at all levels, including after the baccalaureate.

This seems quite reasonable at first, since free admission seems to be a condition for ensuring accessibility for all. If this applies to initial training, there is no indication that this would not be the case for continuing education. The first sentence of paragraph 13 seems to suggest it.

Public institutions should then deliver their programs for the unemployed, entrepreneurs and employees free of charge – even though the Ministry of Higher Education encourages them to develop their activity in this area to diversify their financial resources!

It is true that in 1947 adult continuing education was poorly developed and may not have been clearly identified by members of the National Constituent Assembly. On the other hand, it is likely that they wanted education at any level to be accessible to all.

Costs beyond tuition fees

Graduate studies represent a financial effort that often goes beyond tuition fees. For many students, travel and accommodation costs are often important, and the scholarship system is not enough to pay for them. Free education is only one element of its accessibility.

On the other hand, the significant development of student loans (virtually non-existent in 1947) is a significant springboard to paid training, whether provided by public or private institutions. With reduced interest rates, they help to increase accessibility to higher education.

This is only partial because the banks usually ask the parents to stand surety. It is clear that the accessibility of higher education is a decoy for young people from modest backgrounds.

In reality, the French higher education faces many difficulties to be at the rendezvous of the preamble of the Constitution of October 27, 1947. The state of public finances makes it difficult to achieve the principle of free education in all the formations, especially if we want to guarantee genuine accessibility for everyone, regardless of their family background and geographical location.

In addition, the increase in the number of students each year, tends to reduce the resources devoted to each student, and it is the most fragile who are the victims. Relatively few young people from disadvantaged backgrounds enter higher education, and when they do, they fail much more often than others. We are far from the intention of the drafters of this preamble.

Australian model

However, some countries have found a way to face this challenge  : to be accessible to the greatest number and to offer quality higher education for all. It is true that they rely on devices that emerged after 1947.

For example, since 1989, Australia has introduced the system of contingent repayment loans (PARCs) which allow higher education to benefit from public funding supplemented by funding provided by the beneficiaries of the training. Australian students go on to higher education without paying US $ 1 in tuition fees, but once they graduate, if they are in high-paying jobs, they repay the loan they received.

Thus, graduates who do not find a good job, do not repay anything, and if their annual income is over AU $ 45,881 (27,987 euros), they spend 1 to 10% of it to repay their debt, knowing that this percentage increases with income. As the ad claims, 100% of the winners played; but with this device, no one can lose. Hard to imagine better.

The model has been virtuous for Australian students and for society as a whole. Since 1989, the country has experienced uninterrupted growth and a very low unemployment rate, particularly because of the positive impact of PARCs on human capital growth and innovation. The positive impact of education, and in particular higher education, on economic growth and competitiveness has been demonstrated in the article by P. Aghion, L. Boustan, C. Hoxby and J. Vandenbussche, and in that of Anna Valero and John Van Reenen.

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The Australian model makes it possible to remove two obstacles to the financing of higher education by students:

  • the lack of bail that allows all young people to benefit from loans; it is provided by the state
  • Potential cash flow difficulties for borrowers, as long as the repayment is only made when the income is high enough, and for a limited fraction of it.

Thus, the maximum rate of income earmarked for reimbursement, 10%, concerns graduates who earn more than 79,300 euros (130,000 AU dollars).

Before 1989, higher education was free in Australia. Observations made by Bruce Chapman of the Australian National University show that the introduction of tuition fees, accompanied by a contingent repayment loan scheme, had no impact on the socio-economic mix of student population, while the number of students has doubled, whether they are of modest origin or more affluent.

Australian universities have benefited from sufficient means to accommodate, in a qualitative way, a growing number of Australian students and have become very attractive to international students.

recent study , on the case of England , which adopted the model of PARC in 1997, whereas the free one prevailed before, reaches the same conclusions. The resources allocated to each student have increased (which has improved the quality of the training) and the number of students has increased, without any change in the proportion of students from the community. disadvantaged.

New equations

Finally, free does not pace with accessibility and accessibility can be excellent, even if studies are paying. For this last condition to be fulfilled, it is necessary, as in Australia, for the State to stand surety for student loans and thus assume the financial risk of failure of graduates.

Finally, when free education leads to poor quality, due to lack of public financial resources, the student increases his risk of failure during his studies and the graduate is not armed to find a good job.

This is an issue in countries with fragile public finances, and who want higher education to be financed exclusively by public money. The absolute or relative impoverishment of higher education endangers young people and jeopardizes the economic and social future of the country.

But this issue was not necessarily noticeable in 1947, otherwise the drafters of paragraph 13 of the Preamble to the Constitution might have written: “The Nation guarantees the equal access of all citizens to education, to vocational training and culture. The organization of public and secular education, of quality and accessible to all, at all levels is a duty of the State. ”

Author Bio: Jean-Philippe Ammeux is the Director at IÉSEG School of Management