Saturday, April 20, 2013

Cal Day Celebrations Ignore Reality

It’s Cal Day, which from the perspective of a grumpy grad student, means that it’s hard to find anywhere on UC Berkeley’s campus to do work in peace, quiet and comfort.  The sound of the band, the echoes of the cheering, and the peals of self-congratulation permeate every corner of the University.

There is certainly much to be proud of on the flagship UC campus, generally regarded as the nation’s best public university, home to 35,000 students, a National Lab, top-ranked departments, cutting edge research in most fields, a fantastic library system, and an array of academic and research units.

There will be speeches at various venues on campus plugging Berkeley to incoming students, alumni, and donors.  And while much of what they will say will be true, they will undoubtedly fail to omit the declining state in which Berkeley and the University of California more broadly, find themselves.  This bubble of pride was burst at the end of last month by a New York Times editorial, on “Resurrecting California’s Public Universities”. 

The editorial outlined the process by which California’s “once-glorious system of higher education effectively cannibalized itself, shutting out a growing number of well-qualified students”, while the legislature “cut the higher education budget to ribbons, while spending ever larger sums on prisons”.  The paper’s editorial board decried a “Legislature..awash in bills that seem to assume that online education is the answer to the problem”, singling out as “particularly ludicrous” a measure proposing a “New University of California”. 

The Times noted that “despite growing demand, spending on higher education over the last decade has declined by 9 percent while expenditures for corrections and rehabilitation have shot up by more than a quarter”.  This has led to “many of the state’s brightest students...attending schools in other states, raising fears that they might never come back”. 

Republicans and Democrats alike, finally waking up to some of these dangers, are pushing online education with all their might.  This is due to its cheapness, to its capacity to usher in vouchers by the back door, and because of the technology fetish.  They need to take a long, hard look at the serious drawbacks of a system of online education, and at the implications of continued de facto disinvestment from UC.  Some campus chancellors are already pushing for what amounts to a break-up of the system (higher rates of differential tuition, for example), and if Californians continue to treat their University system with such disdain, they run the risk of losing one of their state’s best institutions.

The triumphalism on campus today should be tempered by a close look at the reality: declining state funding, increasing student fees, the commercialisation of the University, and an increasingly utilitarian mentality towards research.  I expect that in ten or twenty years’ time, our universities will look very different.  And based on present trends, it won’t be for the better.

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