Léonard Moulin

INED researcher tells us about his doctoral thesis on the effects on higher education students of introducing tuition fees.

His work has received several awards, including the 2017 Prix Eicher this January.

(Entretien réalisé en janvier 2017)

What led you to choose this thesis topic?

I became interested in tuition fees when they became an issue in national and international debate. There has been little research on how having to pay tuition affects student admission and performance. The fact is that charging tuition impacts on higher education access conditions, selection criteria and education costs, and is therefore likely to impact on students’ individual trajectories overall. I set out to answer that question at the center of citizen debate by writing my thesis on it.

What are the central components of the debate?

There are three reasons for charging tuition.
The first has to do with social justice. Since a high proportion of higher education students are from privileged backgrounds, free education might seem anti-redistributive. However, in order for tuition to guarantee equity, there has to be a financial contribution scale and financial compensation mechanisms (aid) that target underprivileged students, enabling them to study in good material conditions. The fact is that outside France this has never been concomitant with increasing tuition.
The second is economic efficiency. The understanding is that high tuition fees make it possible to select students, to ensure they put effort into their studies, and to orient them. Recent research studies show that with academic level controlled for, students from underprivileged backgrounds more often choose short professional programmes if their higher education has to be paid for. Some countries also have seen spectacular rises in the number of graduates compelled to take jobs that do not correspond to their skills in order to pay back student loans. 
The third is the need to increase university budgets. Nonetheless, international experience shows that the state is likely to withdraw as tuition fees rise and that financial aid mechanisms can prove very expensive for public finances. An example is the recent increase in tuition fees in England, where student loan default rates had the effect of increasing the state’s higher education budget.

How have tuition fees been evolving recently?

There is no single trend. Using Esping-Andersen’s welfare state regime typology, we can distinguish three institutional arrangements. The first is the social-democratic regime, characterized by no or low tuition fees and a system of financial aid and allowances that is designed to cover students’ material needs while in school. The second is the liberal regime, characterized by high tuition fees and highly developed loan mechanisms; financial aid in these countries is granted essentially on academic criteria. These two regimes imply very different conceptions of higher education: in the first it is a collective good, in the second, an individual investment. There is also a third type, the conservative regime, where tuition is relatively low and student loans virtually non-existent; this goes together with a developed system of financial aid granted on social and possibly academic criteria, but that aid is not sufficient to cover all costs students have to pay. In this last regime, tuition fees have been rising.

You conducted an empirical study on the effects of charging tuition fees at the University of Paris-Dauphine. What are your conclusions?

Introducing tuition fees changed the types of student trajectories that lead to enrolment in a Master’s programme in economics and management at Dauphine. It has led to increased selection of students already enrolled in a grande école [elite training institution] or a foreign higher education institution, to the detriment of students from a French university other than Dauphine. I also show that contrary to the theoretical model prescriptions, charging tuition does not affect students’ academic performance.

Are you planning to pursue research on this subject at INED?

I would like both to continue working on education trajectories and to broaden my range of research topics. I would like to investigate how individual young persons’ trajectories in the areas of education, couple formation, housing and employment line up or overlay and interact with each other, studying singularities but also respective interdependencies and timelines. I would also like to study the degrees to which demographic structures, social origin, gender, family events, independence and public policy explain young persons’ trajectories.