When balanced with student support, increased tuition fees do not have an overall negative impact on enrolments in higher education, even among students from lower socio-economic groups, unless the magnitude of change is exceptional. However increases in fees can result in falling enrolments among older students, according to an international study released by the European Commission today. The report underlines that grants and/or loans are crucial for offsetting negative consequences of fees or fee rises on university enrolments, particularly from vulnerable groups.
The Commission-funded study, carried out by independent researchers, analysed the impact of changes in student fees in nine countries with different models of funding over the past 15 years (Austria, Canada, UK-England, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Portugal and South Korea).
Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, said "Student fees are a reality for a large proportion of students in Europe – and a controversial issue. This study questions some common assumptions and provides valuable evidence for the on-going debate in the EU on how best to fund higher education to ensure institutions provide the highest quality of education to increasing numbers of students, while guaranteeing fair access."
The key findings of the study are:
For students, fee rises do not generally have detectable negative effects on overall enrolment in higher education or on enrolment among students from lower socio-economic groups. This was the pattern in Germany and Austria (which both introduced and subsequently abolished fees), in Portugal, and after fee rises in England in 1998 and 2006, as well as in Canada and South Korea where fees increased modestly over time.
But rises in tuition fees can have negative effects on enrolments of older students. This was the experience following the most recent fees increase in England, although it is still too early to judge the longer term effects.
Study aid - grants and/or loans – is crucial for offsetting negative consequences of fees or fee rises on participation, particularly from vulnerable groups. In cases where fees play a significant role in higher education funding (notably in England, Canada and South Korea where fees are highest) student support systems reduce the impact on students through grants, tax advantages and/or loans with favourable repayment conditions.
Getting the right balance between fees and student support is important for governments adapting their fees policies.
For higher education institutions, introducing tuition fees usually increases their total amount of resources. However, new income from fees is not always invested in ways – such as additional teaching posts - that directly improves the student experience.
Tuition fees do not seem to make public university systems more responsive to changing demand (for example by developing new types of programme): many other factors, including tradition, prestige and accreditation rules, influence how institutions can and do act.
The study - 'Do changes in cost-sharing have an impact on the behaviour of students and higher education institutions?' - was carried out for the European Commission by Hanover-based Deutsches Zentrum für Hochschul- und Wissenschaftsforschung (DZHW) and Higher Education Strategy Associates (HESA) in Toronto, Canada. The study used quantitative data and qualitative evidence to examine the impact of changes in tuition fee policies on higher education applicants, students and institutions. In each case, the research team used the available evidence to test common theories about the impact of tuition fees.
The study results are presented in a main report, with executive summaries in English, French and German and in nine in-depth national reports, which cover many aspects of cost-sharing in the respective higher education systems.
The study is part of the follow-up to the agenda for the modernisation of Europe's higher education systems, adopted by the Commission in September 2011.It does not advocate a particular system of funding or cost-sharing in higher education. In Europe there is a diversity of funding systems; it is for Member States to decide which is the most appropriate for them.