Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Governor Calls for University Reform...But at What Price?

The Los Angeles Times has obtained a copy of California Governor Jerry Brown’s plan for higher education in the state.  Brown’s strategy for dealing with the University of California and the California State University systems seems to be to use state funding as leverage for reforming the system.  The substance of these reforms, according to the Times, includes “10% increases in the number of transfer students from community colleges and the percentage of freshmen graduating within four years”.

The stipulation that will please many students is that neither university system raise tuition during the next four years, at the risk of losing half a billion in funding from California. 

Brown is effectively asking the universities to choose between autonomy and money: “By meeting Brown’s goals over the next four years, the University of California and the California State University systems could see their funding approach levels not reached since before the recession.  But the institutions have prided themselves on their relative independence from state government, and Brown’s proposal has been greeted coldly by university officials unaccustomed to taking orders from politicians”.

I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about Brown’s plan (it will be nice to read the document itself when it emerges), but there is a certain irony in the hostility from UC bureaucrats, whose gripe over the past decade has been that the state is an unstable partner, and that the funding situation makes it difficult to do any kind of long-term planning, or to commit to any fee structure for more than a year at a time.

Brown’s plan begins to undercut what had been UCOP’s primary excuse for the inexorable tuition hikes over which its growing cadre of bureaucrats have presided in recent years.  It would give them financial stability for four years in respect to state funding—more than the system has had for a long time.  It would give them higher levels of funding than the system has seen in some time (while also increasing the number of students coming into the system, making for a potentially troublesome formula).  And it provides some answer to the criticism that the state is a poor partner.  Brown’s heart is, I think, in the right place on this issue (and look!!  I’ve managed to say something nice about the Governor!!).

UC will be left looking very hypocritical if it spurns this offer.  It might try to argue that Brown’s plan violates institutional autonomy and the integrity of the system’s charter for independent research (and it would be right), but it would also expose the administration’s desire for tuition increases for what it really is: not a “necessary evil”, but instead a systematic attempt to change the nature of the University, subvert its public character, and introduce unethical market logic into an institution that exists to serve Californians rather than market imperatives.

That said, it is not clear that Brown’s proposals would do anything to reverse the march towards a private model of education whereby the burden of funding falls largely on individual students and their families, ameliorated not by serious public reinvestment and collective support out of a recognition of the value of a democratic system of higher education, but rather by the ability of the University to scratch together scholarship money. 

Moreover, the Times suggests that much new funding might go to meet “higher costs for pensions and healthcare” and would “leave little for steps that could improve graduation rates, such as hiring more instructors to offer more classes and more counsellors and tutors to help students plan their course work better”.  The paper also quotes Cal State officials noting that keeping tuition high and requiring faster progress to degree completion are irreconcilable goals; the latter, by placing a greater burden on students, forces them to spread their efforts across work and school thinner, preventing them from finishing in a shorter period of time.

One difficulty with the Governor’s gamble is that he doesn’t have sole control over state funding.  The legislature will have to review his proposals, and there is a good chance that the university systems will seek to outflank Brown by lobbying Senate and Assembly members who are eager to curry favour with the system and take the path of least resistance.  There must also be serious questions about whether, absent structural reform to the state’s mangled political structure—a structure which in its present form prevents long-term investment in or planning by public institutions—Brown could, even with support from the legislature, commit to a medium-term plan of this nature.

But I have to give the Governor credit.  He is trying to start up a conversation which has been stalled for some years, and which is central to the wellbeing of California’s civil society and success as a polity.

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