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Publications:Focus on: Fees for free? The many guises of higher education tuition fees in Europe

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Focus on: Fees for free? The many guises of higher education tuition fees in Europe

Date of publication: 12 December 2013

When a country’s tuition fee system does not cover administrative charges, who picks up the bill?

When fees appear free, are they 'priceless'?

Comparing tuition fees - the fee charged to higher education students for educational instruction - seems straightforward. It should be as simple as crunching a few numbers or better yet, locating dots on a chart. Every year, country comparable data on tuition fees are issued by international information providers. The chart below, based on Eurydice’s National Student Fee and Support Systems and the OECD’s 2013 ‘Education at a Glance’, for example clearly shows that England charges more tuition fees than Japan. It seems straightforward. But is it? Short answer: not really.

Student fees can take many guises, and fees can be charged to cover, or not, a wide range of services: course offerings, staff salaries, administrative fees, libraries, facility upkeep, etc. When a country’s tuition fee system does not cover, let’s say, administrative charges, who picks up the bill? Is it the state using public money, or is it [[File:]]students paying an ‘administrative fee’ out of their own pockets on top of the so called ‘tuition fee’? The answer is: both!

Some countries, such as most Nordic countries, but also for example Austria, make it easy: they officially do not charge any tuition fees at all during first cycle higher education, meaning that part is truly ‘free’. Of course ‘free tuition’ does not take the regular cost of living into account, but even that can potentially be covered by financial support systems like student grants.

In other countries, such as Ireland, the situation seems just as easy at first glance, but it isn’t. Here, first cycle higher education students also don’t pay tuition fees if they meet the terms of the ‘free fees scheme’, a scheme that takes factors such as nationality or residency into account among other criteria. However, what’s not included in the Irish scheme is the ‘contribution’ of EUR 2,500 that students pay per academic year. This ‘student contribution’ covers costs for services such as libraries, registration, facility costs, etc. It is easy to see that these costs that Ireland considers ‘additional’ would be fully covered by the term ‘tuition fee’ in another country, such as Italy, where students typically pay a tuition fee of around EUR 1,300.

Hence, comparing tuition fees in Europe is not as straightforward as comparing dots on a chart because it’s not always clear what they stand for. Do they represent the official definition of ‘tuition fees’ for each country? Or do they represent what students actually pay?

Eurydice’s new ‘National Student Fee and Support Systems’ publication tries to capture the actual amount of money that students must spend for first and second cycles of higher education in each country regardless of what the fee is called there. The diagrams reveal wide variations in the amount of fees paid by students across Europe. Yet as simple as this approach may seem, a full range of other questions arise. For example, where fees exist, are they paid by all students or are some groups exempt? Are fees paid before or after graduation? The publication shows that all these scenarios exist in the EU.
Even when all of these questions about fees are answered, the information remains only partial. The rest of the picture needs to be filled in with information on the student support system. Are some or all students able to access grants and/or loans? Are there other forms of support, such as tax relief to parents of students in higher education, or family allowances? Only when these different data sets are seen together does a picture of the funding reality for different students emerge.

The main problem behind comparing information on fees and support is that cultural reality differs dramatically. There are countries where the idea of charging fees in higher education remains an almost sacred taboo – but yet where no-one would question paying fees to learn to drive. Compare that to parts of Canada where fees are routinely charged for higher education, but learning to drive is part of the core school curriculum.

In the end what matters most to students is knowing whether they can afford higher education. On a European scale, that’s exactly what Eurydice, with its National Student Fee and Support Systems, tries to assist them with.


Authors: David Crosier and Andrea Puhl