Tuition Policies in a Comparative Perspective: Theoretical and Political Rationales
The charging of tuition fees by higher education institutions is a critical component in any cost sharing strategy and one that has become increasingly salient as more and more countries turn to cost sharing in an effort to meet growing demand for, and offset decreasing government investment in, higher education. The immediate issue addressed in a country’s tuition fee policy is the division of the burden of higher education’s instructional costs between the student and his/her family and the government, or taxpayer, as well as the accompanying financial assistance policies/programs that are adopted to ensure that the implementation of tuition fees does not negatively impact access to higher education for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Thus, the policies by which tuition fees are established (or opposed or rejected) are critical both for the very considerable revenue at stake as well as for the potential impact on higher education accessibility and the implications to equity and social justice. This paper will look at tuition fees in an international comparative perspective in the context of this rich mixture of finance, ideology and politics.
The distinction between a tuition fee (or in the US, simply tuition) and other kinds of fees is imprecise and is sometimes even deliberately intended to obfuscate what could just as well be termed a tuition or a tuition fee because of either legal obstacles or political opposition to the very idea of such a fee. However, a tuition fee generally refers to a mandatory charge levied upon all students (and/or their parents) covering some portion of the general underlying costs of instruction. A fee, on the other hand, generally refers to a charge levied to recover all or most of the expenses associated with a particular institutionally-provided good or service that is frequently (although not always) partaken of by some but not all student and that might, in other circumstances, be privately provided. Thus, charges to cover some or all of the costs of food and lodging, or of health and transportation services, would normally fall under the category of fees, as might be the charges to cover some special expenses associated with instruction such as consumable supplies in an art class or transportation associated with a special internship experience. Less precisely distinct from a tuition fee because they are usually levied on all students but are nonetheless based on the actual expense of the particular institutionally-provided good or service – and which therefore might be referred to as fees as opposed to tuition or tuition fees – could be charges levied to cover the cost of processing admission applications or of providing student Internet access or recreational programs.
Finally, charges levied on all students that are associated with non-instructional programs or services and that the students themselves have a major hand in allocating among competing programs and services (usually through an elected student government) are generally referred to as fees.