Monday, April 1, 2013

Beware Back-Door Vouchers at California's Universities

While I certainly worry about what the rise of online higher education (embraced by California Governor Jerry Brown at a recent UC Regents meeting) means for my own long-term employment prospects, and while I don’t believe that the dynamism of a university can be replicated online, I don’t have a particularly violent reaction against the idea of introducing different forms of education in a complementary fashion where it seems like these new forms might do a good job of reaching students. 

However, I find the bill proposed by Darrel Steinburg, the California Senate President, a little worrying.  As described by the Los Angeles Times, the bill “calls for the development of 50 online classes as potential substitutes for the most oversubscribed lower division courses required for graduation at UC, Cal State and community colleges.  In a controversial portion, the proposal would allow these classes to come from commercial providers or out-of-state colleges if their academic quality passes review by a panel of California faculty”.

How this model would work in practise seems to be still up in the air, because the positions of the respective parties in the conversation remain evolving as the distance education industry works to reinvent itself. 

But I’m not convinced that the outsourcing of higher education to for-profit companies makes sense.  In the past, Californians have repeatedly rejected the voucherisation of the K-12 education sector.  While it would depend on how Steinburg’s model develops, I’m not convinced that what he—a Democratic representative—is proposing differs substantially from the Republican efforts over a decade ago to subsidise private education with public funds. 

Steinburg’s bill is a strange way of approaching one of the big problems in California’s higher education sector.  Courses are oversubscribed, and students struggle to graduate on time, because universities’ public funding has been cut dramatically in recent years, meaning that even as more Californians look to our public universities for their education, those universities are able to hire fewer faculty and have in many cases been forced to cut course offerings.  Students who have to work full- or part-time jobs to pay for incredibly high fees (tuition has at least doubled since I came to the University of California as an undergraduate in 2004) have a hard time fitting necessary classes into their schedules, and have to balance their employers’ demands with their educational needs. 

Steinburg’s voucher-esque band-aid does nothing to address the ills behind slow and low completion rates, has the potential to diminish the quality of California’s comprehensive, world-renowned higher education sector, and if legislators aren’t careful, could easily become a vehicle for funnelling public funds to private entities, a scenario which in the intense lobbying environment characterising Sacramento politics, could turn into a free-for-all in which students, universities, and ultimately, California’s public, are the victims of a kind of educational fraud.

None of these negative consequences are a sure thing, but Steinburg’s bill deserves serious scrutiny.  It would be nice if the Senate leader, one of the most powerful Democrats in Sacramento, representing a party supposedly dedicated to the integrity of public education in the Golden State, could develop a proposal which seriously addresses the factors eroding our public education sector.  Instead, he might very well find himself contributing to that erosion.

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