THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION - Paul Jump

The Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia is surely the US’ most well-known pub­lic univer­sity sys­tem, and Berke­ley its most iconic cam­pus. So if even Berke­ley is strug­gling, does that im­ply that a whole dis­tinc­tive facet of Amer­i­can higher ed­u­ca­tion could dis­ap­pear?

There is an ar­gu­ment that, in ef­fect, it al­ready has. That case was made in a 2016 pa­per by Ron­ald Daniels and Phillip Spec­tor, the pres­i­dent and vice-pres­i­dent for strate­gic ini­tia­tives re­spec­tively at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity. In their pa­per Con­verg­ing Paths: Pub­lic and Pri­vate Re­search Uni­ver­si­ties in the 21st Cen­tury, they ar­gue that the tra­di­tional mis­sion of pub­lic re­search uni­ver­si­ties was to pro­vide “an af­ford­able ed­u­ca­tion that is avail­able broadly to the pop­u­lace, tai­lored to the needs of the com­mu­nity, and in­de­pen­dent from in­flu­ence”.

How­ever, since the 1990s, pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties’ in­comes from state sources have been on the de­cline, such that “a large num­ber of pub­lic re­search uni­ver­si­ties now re­ceive less than 10 per cent of their rev­enue from state funds”, Daniels and Spec­tor write. The de­cline has been par­tic­u­larly sharp since the 2008 fi­nan­cial crash, dur­ing which pe­riod “more than half of the states have cut spend­ing [on pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties] by at least 25 per cent”. Nor have th­ese de­clines been re­versed as the econ­omy has be­gun to re­cover.

Pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties have re­sponded by putting up tu­ition fees and re­cruit­ing more out-of­s­tate stu­dents, who can be charged more. By con­trast, pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties have moved to im­prove their ac­ces­si­bil­ity over the past 15 years, both by tech­no­log­i­cal means such as mas­sive open on­line cour­ses, in which they are “among the major in­vestors and par­tic­i­pants”, and by im­prov­ing their af­ford­abil­ity. “As a re­sult, tu­ition and fees net of fi­nan­cial aid in­creased by only 17 per cent at pri­vate non-profit uni­ver­si­ties in con­stant dol­lars since 2000, com­pared to an in­crease of 136 per­cent at pub­lic four-year uni­ver­si­ties dur­ing the same pe­riod,” Daniels and Spec­tor write.

So “al­though net tu­ition is still lower at pub­lic than pri­vate re­search uni­ver­si­ties in most cases, that is no longer al­ways the case”. The ex­cep­tions in­clude Berke­ley’s neigh­bour, Stan­ford Univer­sity.

Mean­while, some pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties re­cruit as few stu­dents from a poor back­ground (in re­ceipt of Pell Grants) as pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties do – al­though Berke­ley’s pro­por­tion of such stu­dents (35 per cent) still far out­weighs those of Stan­ford (15 per cent) and the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy (11 per cent).

Over­all, in­creases in fed­eral spend­ing on re­search over the past few decades mean that some pri­vate re­search uni­ver­si­ties, such as Johns Hop­kins and the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, re­ceive a greater pro­por­tion of their over­all bud­gets from all pub­lic sources than do some of their pub­lic peers, Daniels and Spec­tor note.

Re­cent years have also un­der­mined pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties’ his­tor­i­cal in­de­pen­dence from in­flu­ence. They have be­come “the sub­ject of ever greater po­lit­i­cal de­bate, scru­tiny, and in­ter­ven­tion by pub­lic ac­tors (or their agents). This in turn has led…to a num­ber of wrench­ing clashes be­tween state po­lit­i­cal lead­ers and univer­sity lead­er­ship on a wide range of top­ics, in­clud­ing not only their bud­gets but also the day-to-day op­er­a­tion and even the aca­demic de­ci­sions of their uni­ver­si­ties.”

Nor does the fact that pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties are be­holden to lo­cal pol­i­tics nec­es­sar­ily make them more re­spon­sive to their en­vi­rons, Daniels and Spec­tor claim. They cite the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia’s pi­o­neer­ing ef­forts to re­vi­talise its neigh­bour­hood – an ini­tia­tive im­i­tated by Daniels him­self at John Hop­kins (“Pil­lar of the com­mu­nity”, Features, 9 Fe­bru­ary).

The Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia is among the pub­lic sys­tems that, in rel­a­tive terms, has “a greater de­gree of struc­tural in­de­pen­dence from the state”, Daniels and Spec­tor say. But, even so, its cam­puses are “still sub­ject to on­go­ing state in­flu­ence and in­ter­fer­ence in ar­eas such as ap­pro­pri­a­tions, au­dit­ing, and health and safety. As a re­sult, the dis­par­i­ties be­tween pri­vate re­search uni­ver­si­ties and even the most in­de­pen­dent pub­lic re­search uni­ver­si­ties con­tinue to grow in ar­eas such as fac­ulty pay or ex­pen­di­tures per en­rolled stu­dents.”

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