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Eyeopener Staff

France

The French feel the same about post-secondary education as Canadians feel about health care: They’re seen as basic rights everyone should have access to.

Education in France is a two-tier enthusiast’s wet dream. Everyone has access to a public university, but those who can afford it can go to a private institution. Private universities are referred to as Grandes ?coles. When French students graduate from high school, they receive a baccalaureate.

With it, students are entitled to attend any university in the country. There is no selection process and grades do not matter. University-minded students then make a decision: Either go straight to university, or stay on and prep themselves for the rigorous exams to get into a Grande École.

Tuition fees for the public system are heavily subsidized by the government and start at about $180 Cdn a year and can go as high as $1,000 annually for post-graduate studies. For those who can’t afford tuition, there are government scholarships. Plus, students from low-income families can have a large portion of their tuition paid for by the government.

Taxes in France are high, and the French government is strongly committed to putting money towards education. It accounts for more than 23 per cent of France’s national budget — a commitment of $8,000 to each student per year. Last year, 2.2 million students were enrolled in universities across France. But like that time when your great-aunt Millie broke her hip and spent a month in hospital on a cot in the hallway, French universities are feeling the strain of universal access.

In 2004, French newspaper Le Monde wrote about “la grande mis?re des universit?s fran?aises” (the desperate poverty of French universities). French universities are seen as being overcrowded and rundown with little to no money being put towards new research. The dropout rate at French universities is also very high. In 1999, 45 per cent of students dropped out. Fabienne Chapelle, 23, a French exchange student at York University, attends a public university in France.

What strikes her is just how different Canada’s education system is. “(York) university doesn’t have a problem with money,” she says, in contrast to her school back home. For those frustrated with the French public system, there is the option of Grandes ?coles. They are expensive, exclusive and prestigious.

Often smaller in size, they tend to specialize in one area of study. Tuition ranges from $5,000 to $19,500 a year. Students who want to attend must spend two years taking preparatory classes after receiving their baccalaureate. The classes prepare students for extremely difficult and competitive entrance exams, which cost money to take.

Even then, many students do not pass them. Students go through this arduous process for the prospect of getting into the best possible school. Just as the worst student that graduates from Harvard still looks better than the best student from Brock, it’s all about status. The majority of CEOs and high-ranking officials in France are products of Grandes ?coles. But what can Canadians learn from the French education system? For affordable tuition, the government needs to pour a lot more funding into universities. But as we have seen with health care, free access for all does not always lead to a working solution. The government could channel funding into a select few public universities across the country.

Remaining schools could charge whatever they please for tuition. Students would have the option of receiving a free education, or paying for an exclusive one.

Of course, this kind of system would receive the same criticism as two-tiered health care. It would set a dangerous precedent for social inequality and contribute to a growing class divide. Still, France sets a standard for universal access to post-secondary education Canada can only dream of achieving.

— Carla Wintersgill 

Germany The belief that everyone has a right to free post-secondary education has been a given in German society since the 1960s. Former councillor Gerhard Schroeder declared in 2002 that a university should depend on “what a student has in his head, not what daddy has in his wallet.”

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Germany spends about $12,600 on each post-secondary student per year. Multiply this by roughly two million students in more than 280 universities, colleges and other post-secondary institutions — mostly state-owned — and you’re looking at about a $25 billion cost out of the government annual budget. That’s a lot, even for one of Europe’s highest taxation economies at more than 42 per cent of gross domestic product.

The commitment to equal opportunity has allowed German students to complete their undergraduate, graduate and doctorate degrees without spending a penny. This is with the exception of minimal administrative costs, which generally don’t exceed more than $200 a year. In many cities, these fees cover health benefits and public transportation.

Fees only kick in for students who take too many years to finish their degree, and for those who decide to take an additional degree that does not follow on directly from the previously acquired degree. These students are generally charged about $750 a semester. While German states are responsible for 90 per cent of post-secondary school funding, the federal government chips in more than half of the financial aid to cover the living expenses of students from low-income households.

Half of that is given to the student as a grant, the rest as an interest-free loan. A government-supported agency also provides student housing that costs around $200 a month. Unfortunately, declining state funding over the years has left German post-secondary schools in a sorry state. With badly-equipped departments, overcrowded classes and poor teaching quality, less than 70 per cent of students complete their degree.

Plus, little university research is recognized internationally, and study lengths are still excessively long. On average, students take six-and-a-half years to complete their first degree, the longest in all of Europe. The average age at graduation is 26. The German Rectors’ Conference, the association representing most higher education institutions in the country, believes universities are under-funded by about three billion euros a year.

School directors complain of a brain drain as top students go to the U.S. In the last academic ranking of world universities by China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University, only five German universities appeared in the top 100, the best being the University of Munich at 51, compared to more than 50 American schools. In 2002, with conservative-led states threatening to implement tuition fees, Schroeder quickly pushed through federal legislation banning fees.

But this law was overturned in early 2005 when court declared it unconstitutional for the federal government to set restrictions in an area under state jurisdiction. This decision was welcomed by many leaders of German higher education institutions who hope new revenue from fees will boost academic standards of their schools. The country has already begun to make the agonizing change from free to fee post-secondary education — a transition made by the U.K. in 1998 and since then by the Netherlands, Austria, Spain, Italy and Portugal.

Nine of 16 German states, including Bavaria, Baden-Wurttemberg, Hamburg, Saxony-Anhalt and Saarland, began charging fees for first degrees in the fall of 2005, ranging in cost from $900 to $2,000 per semester. Tens of thousands of German students have since taken to the streets in protest. Critics claim the new fees will deter students with poor backgrounds from attending post-secondary school and force existing students to quit.

They point out that when tuition fees were introduced in Austria four years ago, enrolment immediately dropped by 15 per cent. Germans are also worried fees will merely compensate for decreased state funding. Studies have shown state funding per student declined in nearly every country where fees were introduced.

Schools are afraid the money will benefit only the strained state budgets. Social democrats and Germans who prize their free education system will continue to fight new tuition fees.

Others will try to find ways to make the transition less painful. Some have been looking to implement the Australian model, where students pay after they have graduated and their incomes have reached a certain amount.

— Richard Maerov 

Sweden If Ontario were run like Sweden, Dalton McGuinty would not need to worry about the backlash he is getting from angry university students over tuition increases. If Ontario were run like Sweden, no student would ever need to pay tuition fees. Those blue-eyed blonds from the land of ABBA would likely react as harshly to the suggestion of paying a single Swedish krona for university as Ontarians have to the latest rise in tuition.

The Mackenzie report, a 2004 study commissioned by the Ontario Coalition for post-secondary education, noted that Sweden and other Scandinavian countries belong to an “independent student model” where students don’t pay tuition. So how do Swedish universities afford to keep the lights and heat turned on while not charging students?

A quick look through several Swedish university recruitment sites shows that all charge a small student union fee in lieu of tuition, to fund social activities. At the Blekinge Institute of Technology, located on the coast of Sweden, the mandatory student union fee is about $40. That’s less than the $102 the Ryerson Students’ Union charged students in 2005.

However, students must also fend for themselves when it comes to housing, food, text books, and other course materials adding up to over $6,000 Cdn. In Sweden, a student who falls below the poverty line receives government assistance for living costs. The Mackenzie report notes that in 1977, Ontario universities relied on tuition for 15 per cent of their operational costs. By 2004, that per centage had ballooned to almost 45 per cent. Yet Sweden seems to get by without charging tuition.

So what gives? The population of Sweden is just about nine million, so perhaps the education system is small enough to be subsidized completely. Also, only four per cent of the population was enrolled in the 43 Swedish universities and colleges, inclusive of undergraduate, graduate, and even post-graduate studies, in 2003-2004.

In fact, the average enrolment for a Swedish post-secondary institution in that year was about 8,000. The university with the highest enrolment in that year was G?teborg University with 30,450 students, while Stockholm University College of Opera, boasted 39. Similarly, according to Statistics Canada, three per cent of the Canadian population was enrolled in universities in Canada in the same time period. So if it is not the overwhelming numbers, perhaps Sweden is just investing a greater amount of its money into the system than Queen’s Park.

Then again, maybe not. The Mackenzie report says that Canada, in terms of spending as a percentage of the gross domestic product, is “in a comparable range” to the Scandinavian countries. In fact, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in 2004, two-and-a-half per cent of Canada’s GDP was spent on post-secondary institutions. In comparison, Sweden spends about one-and-a-half per cent.

Also, 88 per cent of that Swedish investment came from public expenditures, compared to only 61 per cent in Canada. While there is a larger student population in Canada, there is also much more money available to the universities and colleges, both publicly and privately. Canada has as much money invested in universities as Sweden, yet Canadian students are required to pay tuition while Sweden students are not.

Maybe a system like Sweden’s is the answer for Canada, but that would mean radically overhauling a system that has been in place for as long as memory serves.

— Eric Lam

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