Friday, September 16, 2011

California's Public Higher Education Conversation


Higher education is, or should be, central to any conversation Californians are going to have about their priorities and their state’s future.  Partly because it, with public K-12 education, comprises a large proportion of the state’s budget.  Also because, for obvious reasons (and I’ll argue that their apparent obviousness shouldn’t prevent us repeating them every chance we get—whomever we are), it is central to our state’s well being—whether we choose to measure that well-being in conventional economic terms, or in a more sophisticated fashion that looks at people’s lives in a qualitative manner. 

And people are talking.  But they need to think hard about what they’re talking about, whom they are talking to, what good they are doing, and whether they could do better.  Because part of the problem is that these are largely separate conversations, each of which makes a series of assumptions that a more comprehensive conversation could avoid.  Each grapples with a series of problems they regard as critical, while avoiding the ‘big picture’, or assuming a series of ‘perfect world’ scenarios for that picture (for example, making specific, system- or campus-oriented policies while ignoring the funding dilemma; advocating institutional overhaul without examining people’s value systems or thinking about moral priorities). 

I can think of four big categories or spheres of this conversation: the Formal Political sphere; the Higher Education Public Policy sphere; the Political Reform sphere; and the Integrated Solutions sphere.  I’ll explain each of these and cite an example or two, but also want to point out the deliberate omission of the conversations that students and faculties on campuses are having—from my vantage point—correct me if I’m wrong—these are too disunited or dysfunctional at this stage to have a serious effect on the future of higher education.  That should change, and quickly. 

Formal Political Sphere.

Here, in our state legislative bodies and Governor’s office (to say nothing of local government), the picture is convoluted.  State politics are numerically dominated by the Democratic Party, largely friendly towards and committed to public education at all levels.  But our state’s political system means that state politics doesn’t feel all that friendly to public higher education.

In the first place, term limits, short Assembly terms, and the resulting scramble to fundraise incessantly while jumping from one political office to the next, ensure that few legislators develop the expertise necessary to understand the monstrous complexity of education-related legislation.  Moreover, a Republican Party violently opposed to the state’s accrual of revenue for public-oriented services ensures that education itself seldom gets debated: the conversation turns largely around taxation and budgeting.  What education-related legislation that does pass is generally of a tinkering nature, often occurs through initiatives, and as a result frequently has serious unintended consequences.

Furthermore, the reduction of all politics to budgeting, with revenue increases virtually off the table, means that there is little scope for innovation, no attention to long-term planning, and no serious conversation about where our public higher education system should be going.  In the Republican Party, there is unfortunately no discussion of how public education can contribute to the public good, because the very idea of the ‘public’ and of associational life is increasingly targeted as an evil to be excised from our body politic.

Finally, we currently have a Governor who has no philosophy as far as higher education is concerned; his predecessor, was arguably better about shielding universities from California’s economic decline, whereas Jerry Brown appears to have calculated that he can curry favour with an aggravated electorate by targeting public institutions and unions for cuts. 

This sphere is thus bereft of systematic study, devoid of concrete information and data, and because of its budget-orientation, incapable of sitting down and debating the moral premises that might underlie public higher education—or opposition to the same.

Higher Education Public Policy.

Groups like the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy put out policy documents on a regular basis, many of which read extremely presciently given even a few years’ hindsight.  Characteristically, these tackle either one facet of California’s three-tiered system (the University of California; the California State University; the California Community College), or the system as a whole.  They generally include policy prescriptions, some specific, some vague. 

IHELP, as it calls itself, for example, identifies low completion rates at all levels of the system (particularly at CCCs) as a major challenge for the state and argues that we need to re-orientate: away from addressing access barriers (the studies do not clarify whether they think these barriers have been permanently overcome—this seems unlikely—or whether the inexorable rises in fees of the past several years would cause a re-think), and towards addressing the failure of too many students to complete a degree.  The solution would involve freeing up systems and campuses to use money as they see fit (the prescriptions include more adjunct faculty, less spending on the ‘instruction’ side of the equation, fee increases for CCCs, and more spending on testing students to see that they are prepared for a given stage off their degree track, tracking students, identifying those who are at-risk, and developing programs to avert risk), in an effort to ensure student success and close doors to failure.

Some of this makes unambiguous sense.  Averting student failure (often due to external circumstances) is something we can all buy into.  But would allowing colleges to hire more adjunct faculty have the effect envisioned by IHELP (ensuring that faculties reflect student wants, course needs)?  Or would they allow institutions under pressure from the state and the public to cut corners, lead to the casualisation of labour within the system, and hurt the quality of students’ education? 

But even the bits that sound good—tracking students, intervening to help them at the first sign of difficulties, investing in personnel to do all of this—cost money.  And in a perfect would the state (and the public it represents) would be perfectly willing to pay up.  After all, IHELP and other institutions suggest, the benefits to all of us of higher education are so obvious as to be hardly worth stating.  But the public policy approach, conducted in a politics-free zone, ignores the real-world obstacles to the implementation of good policy.  Increased spending is highly unrealistic at a time when universities and colleges are being asked to retrench. 

IHELP studies repeatedly call for a state-wide plan for higher education.  That’s a lovely thought.  But how on earth—in a state where we’re lucky to get a budget each year, where agencies don’t know whether they’ll survive from one budget cycle to the next, in which revenue is structurally uncertain—can California develop such a plan or framework?

Finally there is the difficulty of the technocratic nature of the public policy approach.  One IHELP study writes that “policy discussions, to the extent they occur, reflect entrenched positions about the adequacy of state subsidies, the morality of tuition and free increases, and the efficiency of institutions” (Shared Solutions: iii).  I would argue that there’s no point in talking about policy unless we are prepared to move forward along certain agreed lines: what is the goal of public higher education, at what levels do we believe we should fund it, within what set of values should its managerial, instructional and decision-making processes operate?

I wouldn’t want to suggest that public policy institutes should throw up their hands and abandon their studies until every other problem gets solved.  They’d be waiting a long time, and doing so when they have something of incredible value to contribute to the conversation: namely, data, specifics, concrete study.  But their advice needs to be given and taken within the context in which we are operating.

Political Reform.

California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It is probably the best, most thoughtful and systematic approach I’ve seen to the structural conundrum that faces California as a polity.  Out ship of state, its authors argue, is engineered to run itself aground, and if we do not take steps to deal decisively with the structural defects belowdecks, we can’t expect to make progress on any other count (for a more detailed review, see here).  Tinkering will not do.

Education (or indeed most policy areas—health, social welfare, the environment, labour rights) does not feature specifically in most conversations about structural reform, except to provide an example here and there.  Joe Mathews and Mark Paul, for instance, suggest that Prop 98 (which guarantees education funding) is precisely not the kind of thing that should be written into a state’s constitution (rather, it should be left for statute), and has actually hurt education funding in some years.  But understanding the structural problems might allow the dust to settle and for legislators to undertake more serious consideration of how to implement policy recommendations in the arena of public higher education.

Advocates of structural reform are generally honest that theirs is only a partial solution.  Some might say that structural reform isn’t really a solution at all.  It’s merely a necessary precondition for even beginning think about solutions. 

Integrated Approach.

I’m thinking here of the approach taken by the recently-published Portrait of California.  This is an extraordinary document, worthy of your attention both because of its thoughtful rendering of our state one decade into the twenty-first century and because it is chock-full of interesting data.

But it is also noteworthy because of its ‘premise’, comparatively novel in the world of public policy (and I keep this report and its like separate from the public policy sphere discussed above because it is less concerned with specific prescriptions than with general problems, frameworks and ideas).  Portrait uses the idea of Human Development (“the process of enlarging people’s freedoms and opportunities and improving their well-being”) alongside the Capabilities Approach (the premise is that capabilities “determine what a person can do and become”) to measure how well different people in different conditions in different parts of California are doing.  Arguing that using “a limited number of universally valued, intuitively understood ingredients for living in a freely chosen life of value—health, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living”—is a much-needed alternative to GDP-based economic measures, Portrait offers a quantitative and qualitative evaluation of what it calls the “Five Californias”.

Education occupies one-third of this report, and higher education features prominently.  And here, amongst the spheres analysed so far, we get a glimpse of the argument about fundamentals that we need to have.  This approach offers some illustration of the interlocking nature of knowledge, health and standards of living, and explains how access to knowledge is both empowering for the individual and of great value to California’s society and economy. 

It illustrates why those more worried about crime and social breakdown than social welfare and social democracy should be very concerned with ensuring equal access to equally-good education at all levels.  It explains why those who would generally argue that economic growth is more important than an equitable distribution of benefits should be thinking hard about our the future of accessible, affordable higher education.

What this approach doesn’t do (in addition to dealing in policy specifics) is concern itself with what a good public education should be doing.  And this is a topic very much up for debate: some suggestions for modifications at the University of California have included a move away from the breadth of coursework that characterises our current system, the narrowing of focus for all but the ‘top’ campuses (i.e. having ‘science’ oriented campuses, while others would focus on ‘social sciences’ or ‘humanities’), differentiated tuition...in short, prescriptions that not only strike a blow at the principle of universality behind the University of California, but which would play havoc with things like ‘eligibility in the local context’, and totally alter the point of what a university degree is good for (we’d see a shift from an emphasis on building and empowering citizens to the delivery of personnel for the workplace).

On-Campus.

Finally, the locus that should be centre-stage but is currently no more than a series of mutterings that occasionally become outbursts—the debate on our college and university campuses.

First the administration.  If activists are misguided in targeting these people rather than Sacramento, there is not much good that can be said of them.  Public Policy publications have been warning for years of the impending crisis in higher education, and anyone with the barest familiarity with California’s political system, or who has opened a newspaper in the past decade should have been able to see what was coming—the combination of political, structural and economic forces that is damaging our treasured three-tier system today.  University administrators, however, apparently didn’t.  And they’ve been playing catch-up ever since, demonstrating a total inability to set an agenda, mobilise their constituencies, influence the state, or get on top of the problem in anything like a serious way.  They have been perhaps worse than irrelevant, because their speedy acquiescence to the demands of the legislature to retrench have been accompanied by an unseemly eagerness to design their systems to operate on a totally different moral premise from that on which it was designed.  Some Chancellors and Presidents (UC Berkeley’s in particular) have been willing to break ranks with the system’s other campuses and argue for special status.

Faculty, so far as I can tell, while occasionally voicing their disapproval of the state’s actions, have made no systematic or effective contribution to the conversation.  In part this stems from the lack of organisation, centralisation or thought-through methodology for reaching decision-makers, but it also seems compounded by apathy.

Small groups of commendably-motivated students unilaterally (though democratically amongst themselves) decided that university administrators should be the primary targets of those opposed to budget cuts and fee hikes, exhibiting gross ignorance of our state’s political system or else convenient blindness towards the magnitude of the problem.  They have proven effective in drawing public attention to the plight of universities and colleges, but because they aim only to influence institution administrators, their abject failure to think through how their protest tactics will be received by the wider electorate which is critical to making the necessary changes at the state-wide level appears to have sunk their efforts and might have made segments of the state more hostile to their cause.

These groups also appear to have extreme difficulty in making the transition from campus-level advocacy to the state-wide level.  This is partly, I think, due to the fact that they satisfied themselves with capturing the support of a small, politically-discrete sector of the student populations on their campuses.  It is also due, frankly, to the frequently ego-driven internal politics of the organisations in question, and their unwillingness to sacrifice power for the influence that would come for a broader, more inclusive and comprehensive campaign. 

But what these groups offer is a description of what cuts to public education are doing to campuses.  They can speak in concrete terms of how what amounts to a un-stated reform of public higher education is playing out in departments, units, colleges and libraries.  Moreover, they have developed a series of arguments, some more cogent than others, about the rights and wrongs of education policy, about why public higher education is important, and about the challenges that our current system poses to them and their families.

They (I should say ‘we’ here) offer the link between the voters and taxpayers and the too-often abstracted student.  The debate, such as it is, often discusses two supposedly-separate groups of individuals: those who are deriving all the benefits from a publicly-sponsored system of higher education on the one hand, and those who are paying for it on the other. 

But in reality, of course, they are all the same people, at different stages of their social and economic lives.  The struggling taxpayer who might resent having to make a contribution (albeit one, in a progressive tax code, in keeping with their earnings) to someone else’s higher education, having never directly benefited from the system him/herself, can take comfort from the fact that the social services network that should exist to allow them to live a decent life even when temporarily out of work, once retired, etc, is being paid for by higher earners who were the direct beneficiaries of the education system in question.  And once they’ve finished their degrees students, who are now presumed to be earning better wages, are paying into the education pot, for generations of future students.

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So we have conversations that are taking place around the means (formal politics), the details (public policy), the pre-conditions (political reform), the benefits/social framework (integrated approach), the morals/impact (on-campus).  So far as I can see, they are largely separate (and I’d love to be corrected or pointed towards sites where they are being productively integrated).

For us to address the crisis in public higher education, we need to identify the purpose of such an education and its moral standing within our state’s community.  Then we can begin to think about the specific policy prescriptions that can help to get us to our goals.  Then, having ideally identified the good that such an education system can do, the moral imperative behind it, and the steps we need to take to realise its potential, we can use our budgeting and revenue tools (because whatever the increasingly irrational leaders of the Republican Party tell us, that is all they are, tools) to realise those moral goals. 

Part of the problem is with our political discourse, which seems to be increasingly based on ‘belief’ rather than evidence.  In such a context, it is crucial to think about how to use the evidence marshalled by groups like IHELP and documents like Portrait to make any impact.  How can the people and study groups and institutes behind these policy documents combine with students, faculty, administrators, political reformers, and supportive legislators to make this conversation happen?  Is it a matter of creating some unifying organisation to advocate for public higher education across the state?  A matter of creating a less-centralised but more in-touch network of distinct interests which can play to their strengths when lobbying and arguing?  Is it a matter of developing a key, signature initiative coupled with reform to grab voters’ attention? 

We need a greater sense of stake on the part of faculty, more political perspective on the part of students and public policy groups, a better-informed voter and legislature base, and a more morally-informed reform and policy lobby to make this conversation happen.  And we need it to happen soon.  Because at a time when students and their parents, rather than any version of a state collective, are increasingly bearing the costs of higher education (except at the level of the Community Colleges), the only thing public about that education is its ambition to serve Californians equally, and the possibility of rolling back the damage that has been done.

But all of us, in however small a way, need to be relentless in arguing what we too-often take for granted: the good that public higher education does, the values that it represents, and the threats it faces.  Because not all people in all communities realise those benefits directly or make the connection, in their minds, between California’s grand, idealistic experiment, and our social and economic lives and futures.

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