THE DECLINE OF THE DISTINCTIVE PUBLIC RESEARCH UNIVERSITY
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.”