Argentina is the latest country proposing the introduction of university tuition fees to combat growing economic turmoil and the low international competitiveness of its higher education institutions. Is this plausible? I agree with Alberto Barbieri, rector of the University of Buenos Aires, who contends that implementing fees is simply ‘not the answer’.
As it stands, public university courses in Argentina are largely free for both home and international students. This may all be about to change. Faced with crippling economic pressures and ongoing failure to catch up with the relative successes of their international counterparts, Argentinian universities may soon begin implementing tuition fees.
Those calling for the adoption of fees appear at a loss of how else to resolve problems circulating the Argentinian higher education sector. Campus budgets are increasingly under pressure meaning that per capita student resources are underfunded, arguably limiting the level of educational attainment an individual may gain. We only need to look at UBA to see that, in relation to its Latin American competitors, its per capita funding is scarce. In strong recognition of this crisis, THE reported today that a shocking 70% of Argentinian students fail to graduate on time. This is only likely to worsen, with sky-rocketing inflation and a drastically falling Peso, which prompted the nation to seek out a $30 billion loan from the IMF in May.
Arguably, tuition fees would be the easy solution. Bring more money into the universities? Check. Increase per capita funding and resources, as a result? Okay. Improve regional and international competitiveness of Argentinian universities? Done, fantastic.
However, tuition fees are scarcely ever the ‘easy solution’.
Unsurprisingly, in any nation, protests usually commence at the very mention of this proposal. Consider the outright chaos sweeping through the UK in 2010 over tuition fee hikes. Notably, Argentinian students are no strangers to protesting against educational reform. Only last year, schools were occupied by students contesting proposals which, if implemented, would pose an ultimatum between attaining work experience at the end of high school or failing to graduate. With the heavy burden of economic disarray currently facing Argentina, further protest and disruption (on top of demonstrations recently launched concerning the nation’s dealings with the IMF) is the last thing the country needs right now.
Political disruption aside, tuition fees would also pose a much deeper problem: capping off university to those who can ‘afford it’. Dr Barbieri told THE: ‘I came from a working-class family and was the first to graduate from university in my family. I am an example of how important [it is to have] diversity of social classes in our universities’. He added that the proposed reforms would ‘damage meritocracy’.
Barbieri’s comments have considerable merit. Diversity is one of the elements that makes university such a special place to be. Universities are often hubs of not only cultural exchange, but of learning how others, from backgrounds different to oneself, have grown and developed. As well as being simply very interesting, opportunities to connect with those from a range of social backgrounds offer crucial learning experiences. After all, university isn’t all about what you learn in the classroom.
He is equally correct in his recognition of potentially damaged meritocracy. Believe it or not, one particular socio-economic grouping alone does not monopolise the intelligence or skills necessary to enter university. This would be a revelation if we were still in the 18th Century, but, alas, we are not. Fees make learning in higher education not a healthy competition of the organised, knowledgeable or motivated, but a game between the wealthy in society. The rebirth of a society like this anywhere (let alone in Argentina, with its historically large middle class, namely thanks to increasingly wide accessibility of education) would be detrimental.
Even on a restricted budget, UBA has been relatively successful as home to 4 of Argentina’s 5 Nobel Prize winners. However, unemployment continues to rage, with graduate jobs a rare find. So, is it really a toss up between accessibility and quality of education for Argentina?
Not necessarily. Barbieri proposes a whole host of measures, none of which include putting a price on higher education. Internationalising courses, staying in tune with technological change and constantly reviewing labour market demands are a start. These measures, if carried out efficiently, will not require lumps of money to be implemented. Instead, they will prepare Argentina to face its ongoing economic calamity, which is only likely to worsen in the forseeable future.