Exploring free higher education worldwide
Since its early years, UNESCO has been advocating for the right to education at all levels, including higher education (HE). To ensure this right, it is essential that HE is made freely accessible and guaranteed for all. Tuition-free public HE is an important step towards making the right to higher education a reality (UNESCO, 2022).
A country’s decision to make public HE free can also be considered as a signal that it strives for a highly educated population to nurture and sustain its development. Previous research has shown that the removal of tuition fees in HE increases social demand for HE and, ultimately, the level of educational attainment of the population.
Funding HE: A multi-faceted question
Nevertheless, it is essential to recognize that tuition fees are just one part of the equation. Other costs and barriers, such as living expenses and admission requirements, can hinder students’ ability to enter and succeed in HE.
Looking at systems, we should also bear in mind that HE requires substantial investments to ensure the quality of education and research conducted within HE institutions. Policies mandating free public HE should thus ensure that the resources previously coming from private sources – that is, students and their families – are fully compensated with new funding streams.
Ultimately, building accessible, high-quality, and equitable HE systems requires taking a multifaceted approach that considers tuition fees, other financial and systemic barriers to HE, and the funding needs of HE institutions to conduct their missions.
Our policy insight
UNESCO-IESALC is contributing to this discussion by publishing a Policy Insight on free public higher education. This short digest highlights, in a comparative way, insights from the HE Policy Observatory regarding one question: which countries have mandated free public higher education through their legislation? These results cover nearly 150 countries and provide overviews across world regions and income groups.
Mathias Bouckaert, Analyst – Policy Analysis and Technical Cooperation, UNESCO IESALC
Check out the UNESCO IESALC Policy Insight on free HE here.
UNESCO-IESALC. (2022). The right to higher education: A social justice perspective