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Federations Magazine Article
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Post-Secondary Education in 12 Federations

Post-Secondary Education in 12 Federations BY Arthur Hauptman

In this special section of
Federations, ten articles examine
post-secondary education in one
dozen countries, located on all six
continents, with federal systems of
government. Revealing many similarities,
this review also illustrates
how these countries differ in how
they govern, finance, and assure quality in their universities,
colleges and graduate institutes.
One of the authors, Deryck Schreuder of Australia, began his
report with the following comment:
“From their very beginnings all great federations embody
split institutional genes: those which work towards a common
constitutional recognition of regional pluralism and those
which represent the powerful environmental factors driving
and shaping their operating character. As in long-term marriages,
a certain ‘mystery’ surrounds their uniqueness, endurance
and language of discourse …”
That seems like a good place to start our own overview of the
characteristics and policies of the post-secondary education
systems of these 12 countries.
The histories of these federations are diverse. Some flow
from their experience as British colonies, although their federalism
diverges in important ways. Canada and the United States
have consistently assigned primary responsibility for post-secondary
education to their provinces or states. India, Nigeria,
and Australia depend on their federal governments to organize
the sector, although responsibilities have shifted over time,
often evolving into a joint or concurrent function.
Of the federations never under British rule, the South and
Central American countries tend to be highly centralized, particularly
Venezuela where the
Chavez administration continues
to push for a centrally
dominant structure. Mexico is
mixed, with a decentralized
university system, while its
polytechnics are directed by
the federal government.
In Europe, the pattern is
also mixed. Belgium is the most
decentralized country with Switzerland not far behind.
Germany and Spain have been highly centralized, but reforms
in the past several years, particularly in Germany, are moving
them towards decentralization.
The Lure of Centralization
The question of centralization is key to looking at federalism.
Sudeep Banjeree of India distinguishes between “hold-together”
federalism and “come-together” federalism. He
suggests that in holding-together countries such as Australia,
India, and Venezuela, the central government has considerable
sovereignty over the sub-national units, but also more obligations
in mandated fiscal transfers. When sub-national units
have vested authority and access to tax revenues, as in Belgium,
Canada, Switzerland, and the U.S., Banerjee argues that such
federations are examples of a coming-together approach.
The countries examined here display great diversity in size,
post-secondary structures and policies. They range from India,
the largest federation, to Switzerland, with one percent of
India’s population. The differences in population also carry
through to economic circumstances: Switzerland’s national per
capita income of US$50,000 is more than 50 times that of India
and Nigeria.
Canada and U.S. Lead the Pack in Participation
Differences among the post-secondary systems are far more
common than similarities:
• In the U.S., six per cent of the population is enrolled in postsecondary
education at any one time. Canada is not far behind, while in India and Nigeria that number is just
one per cent. These differences are also reflected
in the gross enrolment ratios, which compare
the total number of students enrolled to the traditional
college-age population – more than 80
per cent for the U.S. and Canada, compared to
only 10 per cent in Nigeria.
• The types of institutions students attend range
from Australia, where virtually all students enrol
in public institutions, to Brazil, India, Mexico,
and Venezuela, where one-third or more of students
turn to the private sector. Most of the
federal countries have few federal institutions,
although in South America and Africa federal
universities are often the nation’s best and may
enrol large numbers of students.
• The attainment rate – the proportion of the adult
population holding a post-secondary degree –
also varies hugely, from Canada, with the
world’s highest rate of 45 per cent, to India,
Brazil, and Nigeria, with less than 10 per cent
degree attainment. There are also wide differences
in the number holding bachelor’s degrees
and those with more vocationally oriented subbachelor’s
degrees. In Spain, Switzerland and
the U.S., the ratio of university degrees to subbachelors
is three to one, whereas in Canada, the two types of
degrees are split evenly. In Venezuela and Belgium, the number
with sub-bachelor’s degrees is higher than for university
Natural Resources Pay for Education
Similarities in post-secondary education policies in these countries
are as likely as differences. For example, as Table 1 shows,
in most of these federations, the sub-national constituent units
take primary responsibility for governing and funding the public
institutions. Only in South America do federal governments
have primary responsibility for the governance of most public
Nor does federation seem to be a good predictor of how
much money countries devote to post-secondary education as
a portion of their gdp. The U.S. and Canada spend nearly three
per cent, while some of the other countries direct less than one
per cent of their gdp to post-secondary enterprise. Among federal countries, diversity of resources may be a more accurate indicator
of how much they are willing to spend, since the countries
that rely more on tuition fees or other private resources tend to
have higher rates of post-secondary investment.
Availability of natural resources is another indicator of
spending on post-secondary education from both public and
private resources. Australia’s comparative wealth, for instance,
helps explain how it paid for radical reform in financing postsecondary
education in the late 1980s, which has allowed for
very rapid expansion since then. Oil resources are another good
example – they clearly allow Venezuela, Mexico, and certain
oil-rich states in the U.S. to spend more on post-secondary education.
Enrolment growth peaked in Venezuela in the 1970s as
oil revenues funded expansion. Even a relatively poor nation
such as Nigeria expanded its post-secondary education system
when global oil prices spiked in the 1970s. Of course, when oil
prices decline, tax revenues shrivel, and institutions are unable
to meet their payrolls .
Controlling the Purse Strings
Still, no matter what the source of revenue, there is a near even
split in how education is financed, with five countries relying
on their federal governments to support instruction at their
public institutions, while in seven countries the constituent
units are the primary funders. There remain, however, large differences
in how financing is arranged. Australia has perhaps
the oddest arrangement, with the federal government providing
funds directly to public institutions even though they are
governed by the states. Canada is another interesting example
of federalism with the provinces deciding how to use federal
block grants to fund various social services, including post-secondary
Financial support for university-based research and student
aid are two policy areas that actually show more similarity than
difference. In the 12 countries examined, almost all rely primarily
on the federal government to fund campus-based research.
Only the sub-national communities in Belgium take primary
responsibility for funding this activity. It’s the same for student
financial aid, for which two-thirds of the countries rely mostly
on their federal governments, be it for non-repayable aid or student
loans. Student aid may also be the policy area where there
is most cooperation between the federal governments and their
constituent units in order to ensure the aid is adequate.
Struggle for Quality and Innovation
These 10 reports also reveal various arrangements by which the
federal governments and their constituent units maintain and
improve the quality of academic programs. Most of the countries
rely on their national governments to ensure that minimal
standards are met in post-secondary education. Only a few rely
for this on their sub-national units. But this may be deceiving
since, in some countries, non-governmental units such as
national or regional accrediting agencies assume this qualitycontrol
role where responsibilities might include approving
whether students at institutions are eligible for government aid.
Another aspect of quality assurance – approval of new academic
programs – favours the sub-national units. Only India
and Venezuela rely on their national governments to make this
kind of decision. Yet, it may not fall to the constituent units,
either, as in some of the countries the process is actually one of
self-regulation with little government input.
We end with another quotation from Deryck Schreuder:
“Democratic federal systems are among the glories of the
Western liberal tradition. They are also human creations which
have small regard for symmetry, let alone simplicity, as they
evolve the politics and policies of their pluralistic modern
That is certainly true, and this review confirms that federal
governmental structures may explain, but do not predict, how
countries organize their post-secondary education systems.