Sunday, April 29, 2012

Whither the University of California?

I’ve been somewhat out of the UC loop this last year, and so was surprised to read in the Record Searchlight that system President Mark Yudof was on the road and made a stop in Redding. 

I won’t pretend to be a fan of Yudof, who won notoriety throughout the University of California when, in the course of an insultingly flippant interview with the New York Times he likened his role to managing a cemetery, and said of his role, “I smile, I shake hands, I tell jokes” (and on campus, he looks like one).  He and the campus Chancellors were reprehensibly relaxed for far too long about the crisis higher education faces in California.  Their solution has been to move too quickly towards a pay-to-play system (and they’ve been helped by the system’s governing body, the Regents, who count amongst their number the likes of Richard Blum, our own Senator Feinstein’s husband, and a man who has invested in for-profit education).

Some might say that’s fine, particularly when, as Yudof remarked in his interview with the Searchlight, the system remains capable of providing significant financial aid for students.  But to the $4,400 average figure for tuition he quotes, you should add around $15,000 in living expenses.  Students are looking at around $80,000 across four years.  And the $4,400 figure is an average, so there are some who are paying more.  And you might say, ‘Well, they fall in the top income bracket, so their parents can afford it’.  But high fees, even if they’re just on paper, remain a barrier particularly to students who are the first in their families to attend university.  They often attend schools without adequate counselling staff and so, without the supportive and knowledgeable network which can reassure them of the affordability of university, they are less likely to apply.  And even those who are likely to benefit from financial aid might well stop and wonder how long such aid will be available given the financial uncertainty that plagues UC thanks to Californians’ disinvestment from what is probably the state’s most successful institution.

My bigger trouble with all of this is that, as Yudof points out, UC benefits the state as a whole, and it used to be a genuinely public institution.  It remains so in name, which is important, but in financial terms, it is nearing privatisation, for very little of its funding comes from the state.  California’s disinvestment has prompted Berkeley’s Chancellor to suggest that the flagship campus might look at going its own way, or at doing a deal with the federal government.  Berkeley and UCLA might be able to make this transition by trading on their better-established reputations, but both they and the state would be much the poorer for it.  By shifting the financial burden away from the community which benefits from UC, and squarely onto the shoulders of students and their parents, we are turning education into a service, primarily concerned with the relationship between service-provider and customer, rather than a moral and social endeavour between a society and the individuals which comprise it.  People are thrown back on their own resources, and the mission of the university is diminished as it is forced to abandon its commitment to public service.   

Dire economic straits haven’t stopped UC administrators from launching various cost-cutting programs (Berkeley’s is called Operation Excellence, and the misnomer is so obvious that it’s a laughingstock on campus).  This essentially means that large numbers of consultants are paid six figures, and the administrators multiply like rabbits while lecturers are sacked, departments and divisions are cut, and classes are axed.  People often rail against the supposed fat at UC.  There certainly is some.  But it’s not in the academic sphere, and it is not supported by professors, students or staff.

Jenny Espino pointed out that Yudof sees an era of retrenchment ahead for UC “even as Chancellors tell him as many as 40,000 potential students could be served statewide”.  And the state needs those graduates.  Read the following from the enlightening document, A Portrait of California, published in 2011:

“Educational attainment is a key driver of earnings, more so today than in the past.  In 2009, workers with graduate degrees had median incomes of $73,000, and workers with bachelor’s degrees had median incomes of $52,000; by contrast, high school graduates had incomes of about $27,000, and those without high school diplomas roughly $18,500.  The United States is not producing enough highly skilled workers to meet labor market demand, and the earnings of such workers are thus increasing sharply in comparison to the wages of people with less education.  The problem is acute in California.  The Public Policy Institute of California forecasts that if current trends continue, by 2025, California will have 1 million fewer college graduates than its labor market will demand; about a third of working-age adults will have bachelor’s degrees, but the economy will need four in ten workers to have them” (117).

So now, in other words, is not the time to be jabbering about the ‘elitism’ of higher education as a former presidential candidate was just last month.  Upping the number of college graduates won’t just mean more jobs for our citizens, more innovation for our state and society, and a more balanced economy for California; it also means greater equality, for it would check the growing income gap (and the concomitant gap in access to services and a decent living standard that such an income gap presages) referred to above. 

You could make a philosophical argument for UC, but beyond that, all the evidence suggests that it’s simply a very sensible investment for the public.  We’ll all benefit from greater income equality; from innovation in the fields of science, technology and medicine; from the training of people to think and act critically in the context of our enfeebled political discourse; and from the contributions that skilled members of the workforce will make to our collective economic endeavour.

But there will be no UC Redding, because in the for-profit model of education towards which California is drifting, there is no money in building new campuses…only the potential to do a lot of social and economic good for the region and the state.  As little respect as many of us at UC have for our system and campus leadership, these people ultimately don’t have much say about UC’s funding.  That fault lies with the legislature (most governors have supported UC, Schwarzenegger more successfully than Brown), and with the voters who stand behind them.  And because of state disinvestment from higher education, UC is turning towards a for-profit model. 

I’ve outlined some concerns about what this means elsewhere in more detail, but in broad terms this will eventually mean educating a smaller, more economically-select group of students from within California together with more international and out-of-state students, marking a deviation from the public mission of the system (Yudof and Berkeley’s out-going Chancellor Robert Birgeneau have been eager to recruit more students particularly from East Asia at the expense of Californians).  It might mean specialised campuses in which students might not have access to the full spectrum of degrees, something which would not only impoverish the content of a university education, but which would play havoc with funding models such as ‘eligibility in the local context’.  It might mean a tightening of the breadth of a UC education, a breadth which is the great strength of higher education in the U.S.  It would mean an orientation, in terms of scientific and technological research, towards the short-term goals of industries (the English university system, having been basically privatised overnight by David Cameron’s government, is already moving in this direction to the great dismay of researchers, many of whom have begun flocking to the U.S. and Canada where cuts and the extent of privatisation have been less severe), which has the effect of stifling real innovation, free-thinking, and would likely have precluded many of the breakthroughs in recent decades in such fields. 

It also means that fields like history, philosophy, literature, politics, and anthropology—all of those fields which are instrumental to the fostering of critical, humanistic thought—are being left out in the cold.  It will be harder and harder for graduate students to get funding in these fields because they aren’t seeing as providing a financial return on the investment (Newt Gingrich’s claims aside, most of us aren’t going to be ‘historians’ for Fannie and Freddie).  But worse still, it means that undergraduates will be discouraged from pursuing such degrees because all the emphasis is on marketable skills.

Retrenchment in higher education is bad for California as a whole.  But it’s particularly sad for a place like Redding which, as both the editorial and Tiffany Felicienne point out, could benefit hugely from a UC or CSU campus. 

Think about these statistics (from A Portrait of California): 12.4% of Shasta County residents have less than a high school degree.  19.9% have at least a Bachelor’s degree.  6.5% have a graduate or professional degree.  School enrolment is 86.5%, and median earnings are $25,627.  The life expectancy at birth is 76.

Now turn to Irvine, near the top of the HD* scale in California:  3.7% have less than a high school degree.  64.6% have at least a Bachelor’s degree.  27.3% have a graduate or professional degree, and school enrolment stands at 100%.  Median earnings are $49,180, and the life expectancy is 85.5.  Of course the cost of living is higher in a place like Irvine, which can partially explain the wage difference, but a higher cost of living tends to bring with it a higher quality of services and greater investment in social infrastructure which contributes to well-being.  And cost of living alone cannot explain the difference in educational attainment (and accessibility) or the nearly ten extra years of life the city’s residents can expect. 

Unfortunately, I’m sure that Yudof is right in predicting that no new campuses will be built for a long time, if ever.  Because California seems to have lost the knack of looking farther than the next budget down the road.  Its political structure, and the mentality of too many voters means that the kind of investment that has made UC the finest education system in the world—one which continues to attract top students from many, many other countries—is no longer possible.  Neither idealism nor economic necessity appear to be enough to spur us to the realisation that a small financial sacrifice today will pay big social and economic dividends tomorrow, particularly for places like Redding, which did not benefit from the first big round of investment in higher education. 

I’ve been lucky enough to spend the last eight years of my life as a UC student, and I can say very certainly that despite the unfair knocks the system has been taking recently, it remains an unbelievably invigorating environment, characterised in equal measure by academic rigour and free-thinking, and is probably the greatest engine for economic growth and social equality in California.  We should think twice about disinvesting, and long and hard about how a place like Redding stands to benefit from the renewed investment that a commitment to higher education would bring.


* The Human Development Index is a holistic measurement used as an alternative to GDP when measuring quality of life.  A Portrait of California remarks that “the human development approach allows for the exploration of interlocking factors that fuel advantage and disadvantage, create opportunities, and pattern life chances” (6).  Its three broad areas of measurement are health, education and income.

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