Unpacking the ‘flexibility’ mantra in US higher education

‘Flexibility’ is genuinely slippery concept, one that provides some sense of coherence with vagueness. It is also a concept that is a resource to be used in the pursuit of power.

I’m most familiar with the concept of flexibility in relationship to the changing nature of production systems. There has been a long debate in Economic Geography, for example, about phenomena like ‘flexible specialization’ and ‘flexible accumulation’. These interrelated concepts have helped scholars and industry analysts make sense of how production systems are evolving to cope with increasingly levels of competitive pressure, the emergence of global value chains, new forms of territorial development, and so on.

The concept of flexibility was also used, in abundance, when I lived and taught in Asia until 2001. It was frequently used in association with the corporatization (aka autonomy) agendas occurring at the same time as Asian higher education systems and institutions (HEIs) were expanding. Since then numerous systems of higher education (including Singapore, Malaysia, China) have seen expansion going hand in hand with rapid increases in funding, along with enhanced flexibility with respect to governance. Implementation problems exist, of course, and autonomy and flexibility mean different things to different people, but this was and still is the broad tenor of change.

It’s surely a sign of the times in America that we have also seen an expansion of the use of the concept of flexibility, though linked not to increased levels of funding, but to striking budget cuts. Given this, the concept of flexibility needs to be interrogated. This entry does that, though only in a very exploratory manner.

As noted above, flexibility is emerging as a keyword in some ongoing higher education debates in the US. For example, it is frequently used in in association with the ‘Charter University’ agenda in several states (e.g., Ohio). Closer to home (for me), flexibility was a mantra in deliberations and communications about the proposed ‘New Badger Partnership‘ (NBP) initiative put forward by the recently departed Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Carolyn ‘Biddy’ Martin) as well as the University of Wisconsin System alternative known as the ‘Wisconsin Idea Partnership‘ (WIP). If realized, the NBP would have led to the separation of UW-Madison from the UW System, along with numerous flexibilities and enhanced autonomy (from the System & the State). See here for an April 2011 summary of key elements of the NBP (vs the WIP), including proposed ‘flexibilities’ with respect to:

  • Budgeting
  • Tuition/Pricing
  • Human Resources
  • Capital Planning/Construction
  • Financial Management
  • Purchasing/Procurement
  • Governance
  • Accountability

In the end, the NBP was not supported by the State Government due to a complicated array of political factors, as well as a problematic planning process that generated ineffectual support on our campus.

Now, while the NBP is unlikely to be resurrected, some elements of it have been incorporated into the unfolding governance agendas reshaping both the future of the UW System and UW-Madison itself.  A state-appointed “Special Task Force on UW Restructuring and Operational Flexibilities” was recently established to consider the future of the UW System (it will report back by January 2013).

Given the debates about the NBP to date, and the announcement of even more budget cuts last week, it is inevitable that the  ‘flexibility’ mantra will continue to exist. Indeed last week we witnessed one Wisconsin politician (Alberta Darling) state that:

[U]niversities could use budget flexibilities passed by lawmakers in June as part of the budget. “It’s not going to be easy, but it can work out,” Darling said.

But what is the full meaning and significance of flexibility with respect to higher education? I’m not 100% sure, to be honest, but what I have noted is that there is more missing from the debate about ‘flexibility as solution’ than there is present. In short, there is a surprising absence of information about what flexibility is and can be defined as, what it can help achieve, and what its costs and limitations are.

There is also an absence of discussion about the long-term implications of relying on ‘flexibility’ to play a significant role in resolving what are in reality structural problems including the steady decline of state support for higher education, as well as the absence of a compact about optimal and necessary levels of support for public higher education. In other words the flexibility debate is a problematically truncated one.

In the interest of helping myself sort things out, I’ve put together a few thoughts and questions about flexibility. Please feel free to disagree with them, and/or add more to the list:

  • Flexibility as legitimacy vehicle: The discourse of ‘flexibility’ masks the scale of budget cuts by tying painful cuts to a hoped-for (and unbudgeted, see below) mediating factor. The chance of new flexibilities generating enough savings or new revenue streams to significantly cover the costs of proposed and actual budget cuts cannot be anything but marginal. The language of new forms of flexibility can let politicians off the hook in that they do not need to accept, in public and in private, responsibility for the full scale of the cuts they themselves are proposing.
  • Flexibility as reward: US politicians seem to be putting forth new flexibilities as a defacto reward of sorts if HEIs accept deep budget reductions. But why were these flexibilities held back for such a long time, including by politicians (Democrats as well as Republicans) who are ideologically predisposed to a constrained role for the state in the development process? And are these rewards indeed rewards for all? For example, flexibility on tuition can generate enhanced costs for students, or flexibility on governance can weaken the ability of some key stakeholders to participate in governance.
  • Flexibility as a means to enhanced governance: The offer of flexibility usually comes in association with significant budget cuts and new found demands regarding ‘accountability,’ ‘efficiency’, ‘transparency,’ and the like.  In most cases enhanced flexibilities come with enhanced forms of governance by Government, not less. These forms of governance can entail an attempt to reshape curricula, course offerings, program funding, faculty practices, etc. Agreements about some forms of flexibility have the capacity to enable Government to burrow more deeply, not less, into what happens within higher education institutions. The irony is that there is no correlation between declining levels of public funding and the desire to govern public HEIs.
  • Flexibility unbudgeted: Flexibilities are often put forward as a key solution to coping with budget cuts, but the potential cost savings associated with proposed changes are rarely (if ever) modeled in detail, nor in a transparent manner. This is arguably a politically-based ‘wish and a prayer’ approach to strategic planning.
  • Flexibility costs vis a vis implementation capabilities: The provision of many forms of flexibility involves shifts in the nature of governance, not its erasure. The recalibration process — pushing responsibilities up, or down (which is usually the case) — puts additional demands on the other units and officials. It is important to determine if these HEIs and officials have the capabilities to take on new responsibilities. If flexibility is distributed more widely, downwards, is there a ripple effect generated such that multiple units are now responsible versus the one before? Are proposed flexibilities more or less costly (in terms of labor costs) to implement in aggregate (e.g., across the campuses of a system)?
  • Flexibility’s power geometries: the application of ‘flexibilities’ in most institutional contexts involves the realignment of power relations at a state-HEI scale, and at an intra-institutional scale, with a planned breakdown of the status quo for good and bad. The realignment outcome often increases the power of some parties, and decreases the power of other parties. It is worth reflecting if this inevitable outcome is an implicit or explicit objective of proffered flexibilities, with an eye to the developmental agendas of various parties.

These are but six aspects I see associated with the emerging ‘flexibility’ agenda for public higher education in the US.

Who could be against flexibility? No one, really, and certainly not me (having worked in some very rigid systems of higher education)! But surely we need to be more critical about what the concept of flexibility really means given how frequently it is thrown around in this era of austerity. Given the nearly 200 years of building up a world class public higher education system in the US, the stakes are simply too high to allow concepts like flexibility be accepted at face value, especially if they mask agendas that are facilitating the decline of said system. This is the era of the ‘knowledge economy,’ after all, and higher education is a critically important dimension of the systems of innovation we are dependent upon for future prosperity.

Kris Olds

Protests, debates & grace under pressure in Madison, WI

Editor’s note: this is a revised version of an earlier (16 February) entry in GlobalHigherEd.  It reflects my enhanced knowledge about what has been unfolding in Madison WI for the last several weeks.  This revised version was posted last week on our Inside Higher Ed mirror site. I stand by the analysis with a further week’s worth of reflection: indeed, the political atmosphere here has deteriorated quite severely in the last three days, almost to the level of farce mixed with brazen displays of political thuggery.

It is also worth noting that I have shifted the long list of links and videos in the original entry, and one follow-up entry, over to a stand-alone site called BadgerFuturesBadgerFutures will be updated every 1-2 days, and is designed to act as a resource site for people engaged in debates about the so-called New Badger Partnership (NBP), and the inclusion of a formal proposal, within the 2011-13 state budget, to grant UW-Madison ‘public authority’ status.  This initiative will lead to the separation of UW-Madison from the University of Wisconsin System, and generate a wide array of impacts, not all of which have been determined.  Interestingly, the relatively high place of UW-Madison within world university rankings, and the need to maintain this position, has been used as an argument for why the NDB should be supported. Please link through to BadgerFutures if you are interested in following the evolution of the debate over the next several months.  These debates are relevant and interesting to engage in, but I am wary of making GlobalHigherEd too Madison-centric.  Kris Olds

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It is not very common to see marches of tens of thousands of people in small cities like my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin (with a population of approximately 235,000 people). The issue that drew about 13,000 into the State Capital area on 15 February, 10-20,000 people on 16 February, 25,000 people on 17 February, 35-40,000 people on 18 February, 60-100,000 people on 19 February, and tens of thousands every subsequent day to the present moment, relates to the decision of the recently elected Republican Governor of Wisconsin (Scott Walker) to unilaterally remove the right of public sector unions to collectively bargain about employment-related benefits. The proposal also repeals, in perpetuity, the rights of some segments of society (including day care workers, faculty and academic staff) to collectively bargain at all, and will generate a defacto pay cut for all people associated with universities of 8+% if it proceeds.

As a Canadian who has lived in several countries generating regular surpluses, but WI resident and taxpayer since 2001, the State’s fiscal challenges are evident to me. However this ‘budget repair’ bill proposal is clearly underpinned not by a logical ‘share the pain’ approach, but by an ideologically-derived agenda regarding the posited rights (or not, in this case) of certain types of American citizens to engage in deliberations about their working arrangements and conditions. I can’t help but wonder how politicians who preach about democracy, human rights, and the value of a ‘small government’ approach, can rationalize an abrupt rebalancing agenda driven by defacto ‘big government’ approach that exudes surprising elements of authoritarianism and anti-democratic impulses. Isn’t this a deliberative democracy? Why no negotiations and civil dialogue via organized fora, speaking tours throughout the state with budgetary Q&A sessions, etc.? But, as E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post put it:

If this were just about normal budget cutbacks, the political earthquake we’re seeing in Wisconsin would not have happened. This is an effort by a temporary majority — I use the term because in a democracy, all majorities are, in principle, temporary — to rush a bill through the legislature designed to alter the balance of political power in the state.

Amazing, and a sign of the intersection of developmental debates at the state level with US-scale political currents regarding class politics, aspirational leadership positioning, and socio-economic networks (including the über rich/conservative Koch Brothers, and their organization Americans for Prosperity, as pointed out by the New York Times, Washington Post, and Mother Jones). Indeed the Koch Brothers have just opened up a lobbying office in Madison, and are launching, today, a $342,200 TV ad in support of Walker according to the Capital Times.

If these proposed changes proceed, the implications are profound and on a number of levels and scales, a point made by Governor Walker himself in the New York Times:

The images from Wisconsin — with its protests, shutdown of some public services and missing Democratic senators, who fled the state to block a vote — evoked the Middle East more than the Midwest.

The parallels raise the inevitable question: Is Wisconsin the Tunisia of collective bargaining rights?

Governor Walker, in an interview, said he hoped that by “pushing the envelope” and setting an aggressive example, Wisconsin might inspire more states to curb the power of unions. “In that regard, I hope I’m inspiration just as much as others are an inspiration to me,” he said.

This strategy is fundamentally dependent upon sowing the seeds of discontent between workers; something more easily done in a context of economic crisis and recession. This was certainly evident around the State Capital building on Saturday 19 February when I spent time listening to supporters of Walker lambasting other workers (for many of Walkers supporters were employees too, not employers) about the nature of their health care and pension benefit packages, and their ability to collectively bargain. The sad thing is this hoped-for inter-worker conflict, and defacto race downwards (in pay, benefits, and working conditions), is being encouraged by ostensible ‘leaders’ like Governor Walker. This is a cynical and short-sighted type of politics if there ever was one. But as Jeffrey Sommers rightfully points out in The Guardian on 22 February:

In short, it has been a return of the mean season. Briefly, in 2008, this frustration was directed against the Republicans. Yet, the Democrats delivered no tangible gains for labour since taking power then, and now, the right has helped steer working-class anger away from Wall Street and back to Main Street’s teachers and public employees. Deftly executed, private sector workers without benefits now blame workers who do have them as the cause of their deprivation. Instead of seeing the gains unions can deliver, private sector workers now take the lesson that these gains have somehow been taken at their expense – all the while ignoring the trough-feeding that continues unabated on Wall Street.

The new class war, as it is actually perceived, is not between workers and capital, but between private and public sector workers, with the fires generously stoked by the billionaire Koch brothers and rightwing money generally. One can only imagine Mr Burns of the Simpsons hatching such a scheme in caricature of capital; but this is real, and few seem to recognise the irony as they play out their scripted parts.

As noted above, the politics and political effects associated with the protests are growing, and getting connected to some stronger national and now international currents, not all of which are based upon a recognition of what is going on on the ground right now, with caricatures of all sorts being inaccurately drawn.

In the end, however it turns out, and regardless of political standpoint, it is important for all people to realize the important role, and strongly felt views, and breathtaking energy, of Madison’s university students, and their organizations (e.g., the ASM, Badger Herald, Daily Cardinal, TAA) in engendering critically important discussion and debate here. I really can’t say enough about their commitment, professionalism, good humor, empathy for older and very different types of people (e.g., union members from northern WI), and absolute grace under pressure. And while ‘off-the deep end’ ideologues like Indiana’s deputy attorney general urged police to use live ammunition against Wisconsin protesters (I’m sadly not joking), what will leave a lasting legacy, in ever so many minds, is the critically important role of students (both university and high schoolers) in shaping a window of February 2011 that is of genuine historic import.

In closing, here are four short videos that capture aspects of the university (and high school) student presence I noted above. The first three were produced by 22 year old Matt Wisniewski, and the third by PhD student Shahin Izadi. A fourth, by Madisonian Finn Ryan, focuses on the broader segments of society who have also been active, in an equally positive and constructive way, in conveying their dissatisfaction with the Walker agenda.

AUSTERITY FASHIONISTA or A CALL TO LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP: Reflections on Higher Education Budget Cuts in England and California

Editors’ note: today’s guest entry has been kindly developed by Dr. John Aubrey Douglass, Senior Research Fellow – Public Policy and Higher Education at the Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE) at the University of California – Berkeley, and currently visiting professor at the University of Campinas (Unicamp, Brazil). John Douglass is the co-editor of Globalization’s Muse: Universities and Higher Education Systems in a Changing World (Public Policy Press, 2009), and author of The Conditions for Admissions (Stanford Press 2007) and The California Idea and American Higher Education (Stanford University Press, 2000; published in Chinese in 2008).

This contribution reflects the author’s recent analysis of the past and future of California’s higher education system: see ‘Re-Imagining California Higher Education‘ Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE), UC Berkeley, ROPS Oct 2010; ‘Chaos to Order and Back: the Cal Master Plan@50‘ CSHE ROPS May 2010. This piece should also be read in conjunction with James Vernon’s piece (‘The end of the public university in England‘) in GlobalHigherEd (a genuine ‘hit’ given the traffic it generated) as well as ‘Browne’s gamble: the future of universities‘ by Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books. Mark Blyth of the Watson Institute of International Studies (Brown University) has also helped shed light on the current round of austerity budgets sweeping the globe via this striking new video (aptly titled Austerity) which we posted today just below John Douglass’ entry.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

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To a degree unmatched among developed economies, Britain’s new government has decided to embrace austerity in government spending. How is one to interpret the actions of the fresh, young Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne? For one, its seems like a legitimate, if perhaps an overreaching, reaction to government debt.

One sees a similar reaction among those nations hit hardest by the Great Recession, with governments with previously existing large deficits and economies built on the housing bubble and consumer debt, including the US, Ireland, and Portugal.

To varying degrees, these nations are now entering a profoundly anti-Keynesian moment, taking a bet that the private sector will quickly make up for public investment and services to help turn their economies around.

A second interpretation? The austerity drive and its severity in England is part of a larger political attack; an opportunity to severely reduce government services and costs not to be missed – a version of the “starve the beast” approach championed now for decades in the United States largely by Republicans.

With a public increasingly wary of the government’s ability to navigate the treacherous waters of the Great Recession, and a building campaign and sense that government debt is a bigger concern than, say, immediate job creation, conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic are attempting to seize an opportunity to cut government spending across the board.

And that is what you see in England. Across the board cuts of some 40 percent are, to say the least, draconian. There are only a few exceptions, including funding for the national health care system. But otherwise, there has been no effort, it seems, to pick and choose winners based on, to imagine another path, long-term effect economic development or educational attainment rates.

Under Gordon Brown’s labour government, higher education suffered relatively minor cuts to research, but always under the specter that more significant cuts were on their way.

Time will tell if Conservative policymaking, with seeming consent of the Liberal Democrats will be a grand economic success. England has a large debt problem, no doubt; but one already sees some signs of economic growth in England’s economy – arguably the partial result of stimulus funding under Brown. Why not a more measured program of cuts over time, marginal increases in revenues, with priority funding where you get long-term economic and social benefits?

But never mind that discussion; what will be the consequences for British higher education?

Like other government services, the university sector is to experience a 40 percent cut in funding from the national government, to be accomplished over a four-year period. Lord Browne’s new report on the future of England’s higher education system, a commission report launched before the recent Conservative victory, has accepted the Cameron government’s austerity demands, and the backroom desire of the Russell Group, that a partial answer is to generously lift the cap on university tuition fees.

The Browne report recommended, and the Tories have formally accepted in their recent budget announcement, the notion of a new cap: a £6,000 per year “threshold,” up from £3,250, to a maximum of £9,000 in “exceptional circumstances” – read, the Russell Group with a collection of some 20 self-appointed elite universities, including Oxbridge.

From a foreign, US perspective, the added edict of the Tories to shift what HEFCE university funding remains to science and engineering fields, and reducing funding to the humanities and social sciences is to seriously meddle with what should normally be internal funding decisions of institutions. Universities now must dig into their fee income if they want to keep these programs in place, placing pressure on their vibrancy, and in some cases existence.

And what is the response of other members of England’s higher education community? It’s a diffuse lot, but Universities UK President Steve Smith, seems to think it is all a done deal, and that the new fee cap “allows universities to replace a large part of the lost state funding for teaching,” by way of post-graduate contributions.

We believe,” explains Smith, “that this package of proposals represents the best available funding system for universities, given the £2.9bn cuts to the higher education budget announced in the Spending Review.

Of course, you get the typical response of students and the growing ranks of dissatisfied university faculty. The University and College Union and the National Union of Students just held a decent sized protest rally in London, with estimates of the number of participants varying from 25,000 to over 50,000. A good amount of the anger is pointed to the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to oppose any increase in university fees.

In my view, the magnitude of the cuts and proposed increases in fees is extremely problematic– a “leap before you look” approach to policymaking that is fairly common in England. Most studies show that you can move to a moderate to high fee, and high bursary/financial aid system with possibly positive influence on socio-economic access. But it also must be a process done slowly, not on the fly, and certainly not in the time frame demanded by Prime Minister Cameron and his party.

How can such dramatic and rapid cuts be absorbed without negatively influencing educational attainment rates, and the vitality and moral of most of England’s higher education institutions? It seems that the “exceptional” fee model may very well benefit the elite institutions, but what is the effect in the larger system, and the not so elite?

Of course, I don’t fully know the answer; nor, might I say, does anyone else. As a matter of reference, however, I can say with a small drip of sarcasm, welcome to the club. Most states in the US have been going through a similar financial restructuring characterized by sizable reduction in government support. California in particular has suffered the wrath of steep, sudden, and unanticipated declines in revenue.

Here is a short story focused on the experience in California.

The Case of California

The dire situation for US higher education is most acute in the state of California, presenting an exaggerated yet common narrative. With some 35 million people, California is the largest state (nearly twice the size of New York in population) and has an economy that ranks among the top ten in the world if it were a country.

The state also has the largest concentration of high technology companies in the American union. Unlike England, California is projected to experience large-scale population growth, with an estimated population of 60 million by 2050.

At the same time, California’s famous public higher education system is undergoing a possibly significant redefinition, driven solely by severe budget cuts and without a long-term strategic plan.

In terms of access and graduation rates, the grand success of California’s pioneering public higher education system, and its Master Plan, is in many ways a thing of the past. Where California was always among the top states in high school graduation rates, in access to higher education, and in degree completion rates, the state now ranks among the bottom ten in most categories.

In short, it is modestly good in access, and an extremely low performer in degree production.

The causes are many, including declining investment in education generally, low high school graduation rates, and high attrition rates among students in higher education – a pattern that correlates with a high number of part-time students in California and an inadequate financial aid model at the national and state level, affecting California’s ranking in a number of funding and performance indicators (see accompanying box).

Note California’s general low ranking in the US; then note that the US has been declining relative to economic competitors among the 32 mostly developed member nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Economic Development (OECD).

The Great Recession has accelerated California’s decline and may have a significant impact on educational attainment levels in the state – probably a real decline in the short-term.

Declining state revenues has brought a near collapse in the coherence of California’s higher education system. Public funding per student has plummeted and, for the first time, students normally eligible for the University of California and California State University systems have been denied admissions.

Over the past decade, both UC and CSU have been taking on more and more students that are, in the parlance of university administrators, “unfunded.” The University of California has some 15,000 undergraduates receive no corresponding funding from the state; at a campus like Berkeley, some 18 percent of undergraduate are “unfunded” by the state.

California’s Community Colleges could not absorb students who were refused admission to UC and CSU. A budget cut of $825 million for these colleges has led to wholesale cutting of courses and shrinking enrollment capacity, translating into some 200,000 or more prospective Community College students being denied access.

What have been the on the ground, in the trenches effects of the age of austerity?

The Case of the University of California

At the University of California, which includes ten campuses and has the reputation of being one of the most productive and high quality university systems in the world (some six campuses are members of the prestigious Association of American Universities), budget cuts have resulted in large fee increases – not unlike what England will soon experience.

The UC Board of Regents increased fees by 15 percent in Spring 2010, and then did it again in for Fall 2010 – an increase of over 32 percent over less than a two-year period. UC undergraduates now pay about $11,000 a year in fees and campus-based costs; room and board can add $16,000. Graduate and professional students pay more.

Despite a slight increase in funding for UC proposed in the state budget for this year – a glimmer of hope of a marginal resurrection of public funding – UC President Mark Yudof just proposed another 8 percent increase in UC student fees, “to help maintain the university’s excellence.” The increase would take effect in fall 2011.

Like the emerging bursary scheme in England, a third of all fees is returned to lower income students in the form of financial aid. The plan is to expand the so-called “Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan,” a financial aid promise that UC students from families earning below $80,000 annually can attend tuition-free – up from the $70,000 threshold used last year for financial aid.

But these large increases in tuition and fees have not been enough to cover the huge loss of public funding for UC – again, a story that most British higher education institutions (HEIs) will likely experience. State support per student at UC has declined by roughly half in the past two decades.

The other ways to cut? Besides cutting enrollment, the most common path to fiscal austerity is to cut faculty and administrative support staff positions. This drives up student to faculty ratios. At UC, class sizes are up by about 25 percent.

The university has and is eliminating programs, reducing library hours, cutting extracurricular activities, cutting support services, and hiring not only fewer teaching faculty, but also student assistants and part-time student employees. See the accompanying box for a list of impacts for the UC system as a whole, and then at the Berkeley campus where I am.

Take these examples, and magnify them several times and you get a sense of what is happening at the California State University (CSU) which enrolls twice as many students as UC, and is a teaching focused university, and the primary source of teachers and engineers in California.

Large-scale cuts in staffing have resulted in large-scale cuts in courses offered. Reduced course sections will extend graduation time for many students. “Currently, 48% first-time freshmen graduate within six years, which may decrease when students are unable to get into courses needed to graduate,” noted a recent report by the California Postsecondary Education Commission.

The “Brazilian Effect”

Looking beyond UC and CSU, another macro effect is what I call the “Brazilian Effect”:  when public higher education can not keep pace with growing public demand for access and programs, For-Profits rush to fill that gap, and become a much larger provider. This is the pattern in many developing economies – Brazil where more than 50 percent of student enrollment is in For-Profit institutions; Korea, and Poland also reflect this model.

To be fair, Brazil has recently made significant strides to regulate its non-public providers through a new accreditation process, and has pushed the development of three-year colleges oriented toward vocational degree programs.

California is on the opposite side of that curve. There is currently a steep rise in enrollment in For-Profits in California precisely because of cuts in enrollment at UC, CSU, and the Community Colleges.

In essence, California is increasingly having the characteristics of both a developed and an under-developed economy, i.e. a society with high rates of near poverty level incomes, low high school graduation rates, limited access to public higher education, and low production of tertiary degrees.

As my Berkeley colleague James Vernon recently wrote in GlobalHigherEd, one may see a similar phenomenon in England as a nascent British “For-Profit sector awaits in the wings hungry to buy up or ‘rescue’ the publics that will surely fail in the years ahead.”

Some growth in the For-Profit sectors in California is inevitable and good. A diversified market of higher education providers is an essential component to expanding access and graduation rates. But there is evidence that much of that sector is of low quality and productivity and very expensive for the student and the federal and state governments which provide grants and loans to students.

Some 80 percent or more of For-Profit operating expenses come from taxpayer funded student grants and loans. Particularly at the traditional college cohort of 18 to 24 year-olds, very high attrition is common among these institutions and, in turn, low degree production rates – even lower than comparable public institutions. In 2008-09, students at for-profits accounted for nearly 10 percent of all higher education students, but received 23 percent of all federal student aid, roughly $23.9 billion, according to a recent Congressional report.

The Obama administration has proposed new and fairly minimal rules regarding the eligibility of For-Profits for federal student aid that have extremely high attrition rates and extremely low job placement histories. The industry, with most companies traded in the stock market, is vehemently opposed and, in the midst of Congressional hearings on the bill, has launched a massive and deceptive add campaign to defeat the bill. In this case, it is about money, and specifically the prospect of declining profits and declining stock prices; it is also about the possibility of further federal restrictions of the flow of tax dollars to these private institutions. [According to The Economist (9 Sept 2010), “Shares in Apollo Group, which owns the University of Phoenix, are worth half what they were at the start of 2009. The Washington Post Company has lost nearly one-third of its value since April. Shares in Corinthian Colleges have fallen 70% in the same spell.”]

Nevertheless, even with new regulatory controls on the worst of the For-Profits, many of which are predatory, recruiting students who cannot afford large loan debts and with low job probabilities, the market will remain robust for this growing sector of California’s higher education system. There is a role for For-Profits, but it is a matter of balance.

The current surge in enrollment is largely the unintended consequence of an inability to properly structure and grow public higher education; yet, at the same time, these private enterprises operate largely on taxpayers funding. My primary concern is that this is a default position that funnels growing higher education demand to For-Profits.

California needs a more strategic approach.

Trying to Think Big

It’s a bit of a leap, but I offer in a recent research paper, ‘Re-Imagining California Higher Education,’ a reflection on the macro-problems and pathway for California to once again place its higher education system at the vanguard of being both a high access and high quality network of universities and colleges. Here is a short synopsis.

Most critics and observers of California’s system remain focused on incremental and largely marginal improvements, transfixed by the state’s persistent financial problems and inability to engage in long-range planning for a population that is projected to grow from approximately 37 million to some 60 million by 2050.

At the same time, President Obama has set a national goal for the US to once again have among the highest educational attainment rates in the world. This would require the nation to produce over 8 million additional degrees; California’s “fair share” would be approximately 1 million additional degrees. A number of studies indicate that California’s higher education system will not keep pace with labor needs in the state, let alone affording opportunities for socioeconomic mobility that once characterized California.

California needs to re-imagine its once vibrant higher education system. I offer a vision of a more mature system of higher education that could emerge over the next twenty years; in essence, a logical next stage in a system that has hardly changed in the last five decades.

Informed by the history of the tripartite system, its strengths and weaknesses over time, and the reform efforts of economic competitors throughout the world who are making significant investments in their own tertiary institutions, I offer a “re-imagined” network of colleges and universities and a plan for “Smart Growth.” I paint a picture that builds on California’s existing institutions, predicated on a more diverse array of institutional types, and rooted in the historical idea of mission differentiation.

This includes setting educational attainment goals for the state; shifting more students to 4-year institutions including UC and CSU; reorganizing the California Community Colleges to include a set of 4-year institutions, another set of “Transfer Focused” campuses, and having these colleges develop a “gap” year program for students out of high school to better prepare for higher education.

It also encompasses the idea of creating a new Polytechnic University sector, a new California Open University that is primarily focused on adult learners; and developing a new funding model that recognizes the critical role of tuition, and the market for international students that can generate income for higher education and attract top talent to California.

There is also a need to recognize that for the US to increase degree attainment rates, the federal government will need to become a more engaged partner with the states. For the near and possibly long-term, most state governments are in a fiscally weakened position that makes any large-scale investment in expanding access improbable. Because of the size of its population alone, California is the canary in the coalmine. If the US is to make major strides toward President Obama’s goal, it cannot do it without California.

Ask Mr. Cameron

In conclusion, it will be interesting to ask a few questions to our government leaders in California, in Washington, and in Whitehall. In the midst of the global recession, how have national governments viewed the role of higher education in their evolving strategies for economic recovery?

Demand for higher education generally goes up during economic downturns. Which nations will proactively protect funding for their universities and colleges to help maintain access, to help retrain workers, and to mitigate unemployment rates? And which nations have simply made large funding cuts for higher education in light of the severe downturn in tax revenues?

One might postulate that the decisions made today and in reaction to the “Great Recession” by nations in this difficult economic era will likely accelerate global shifts in the race to develop human capital.

Let’s see how England and the US fare.

John Aubrey Douglass

The end of the public university in England

Editor’s note: the entry below was kindly provided to us by James Vernon, a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. His entry is posted here on the same day a BBC news story suggested that teaching grants “for degree courses in arts, humanities and social sciences at England’s universities are likely to be phased out under government plans.” Our thanks to James Vernon for these informed reflections regarding an historical transition unfolding in England; one with significant implications for those in the UK, Europe, as well many other parts of the world. Kris Olds

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I graduated from the University of Manchester in 1987 with no debt. I paid no fees and received a maintenance grant to earn a degree in Politics and Modern History. If my seventeen year old son were to follow in my footsteps he would graduate with debts of at least £50,000 and were he to study in London that could rise to £90,000.  In the space of a generation we have witnessed the destruction of the public university.

The Browne Report released on 12 October, and effectively rubber stamped in the savage public sector cuts announced yesterday, was simply the final nail in the coffin. Under the beguiling but misleading title Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education it effectively announced that university degrees are no longer considered a public good but a private investment.  Accordingly, it is the individual student, not the public, who will pay its cost.  Tuition fees will rise from £3,225 to a minimum of £6,000 rising to a potential ceiling of £12,000. State funding will fall from £3.5bn to just £700m – a total of 80% but a 100% cut in areas like the arts, humanities and social sciences that apparently have no public utility.

The cost of a university education may be charged to the individual student but they will be forced to pay for it through the sort of debt-financing that governments across the world now consider so inappropriate for themselves.   The scale of national debt is so ruinous we are told it requires emergency austerity measures (like all state intervention these days couched in the inevitable military metaphor of Osborne’s ‘war of welfare and waste’).  Students, meanwhile, will be encouraged to take on loans based upon an  imagined future income. They will effectively gamble that the loan will eventually pay-off by enhancing their future job prospects and earning power.  It will be a hedge against their future security.  What are effectively sub-prime loans are guaranteed by the state. Higher education is now modeled on the types of financial speculation that has helped get us in to this mess.

It is thankfully still just about inconceivable that primary and secondary education could be treated in this way -  indeed, Osborne claimed he would be investing more in these areas.   There at least it seems education remains something that serves a public and social function. Clearly something magical occurs when one turns eighteen and your education becomes a matter of personal not public gain.

When education becomes a private investment not a public good the principle of universal provision necessarily falls by the way.  It used to be a central pillar of the British higher education system that all institutions offered a similar range of degrees at the same price (if not with the same prestige).  A degree in biochemistry at Cambridge cost the same as one in cultural studies at Liverpool John Moores.  In making students customers of educational services Browne opens up the English and Welsh university sector (Scotland has it own more sanely run system) to the vagaries of student demand.  Different universities will compete with each other charging variable rates for different degrees depending on the quality of their service and the branding of their product. Everyone recognizes that Departments and programs be cut, many will be reduced to teaching factories where the link between teaching and research is severed, and some campuses will close altogether or be sold off in pieces.

As so often in Britain when business is the model we are told this is how things are done in America.  Indeed, it is.  Last week the State University of New York cut its programs in Classics, French, Italian, Russian and Theater.  In the last two years the University of California has raised its tuition by 32%, introduced furloughs for its workers that represented an effective 8% pay cut and are now seeking to restructure the pension packages of its employees.

There are however real differences between the American system and the model being developed in Britain.  The now ailing public universities in America existed in a diverse sector with privates (ranging from the small liberal arts colleges to the Ivy League campuses with their enormous endowments), community colleges and the rapidly expanding for-profits like the online degree factory the University of Phoenix.  Private endowments and federal programs like the Pell grant scheme enable both public and private universities to at least be seen to maintain ‘access’ to a diverse student body.  Yet even they seem unable to prevent the fortification of privilege amongst those social and ethnic groups most able to take the loans to gamble on their futures. The rest are likely to be driven in increasing numbers to for-profits who offer a faster, cheaper, denigrated, on-line education.

The lessons to be learnt from the American experience are that fees will continue to rise, unequal access between rich and poor will become structural to the system, and the for-profit sector will grow.  Buckingham University, once the only for-profit private in the entire UK, may well become the model. In July, the Minister responsible for higher education, David Willetts, made BPP (now owned by the Apollo Group the parent company of the University of Phoenix, the largest online for-profit in the US) the second for-profit capable of granting degrees in the UK.  With Obama’s administration accusing Apollo and co of using public funds and federally guaranteed student loans to leverage more private debt from students the for-profits are turning their attentions to the UK. Encouraged by David Willetts the for-profit sector awaits in the wings hungry to buy up or ‘rescue’ the publics that will surely fail in the years ahead.

Many politicians and university administrators present the Browne report as a reasonable response to the expansion of student numbers at a time of austerity and shrinking public budgets. Quite apart from the falsity of the choice between rising student fees or reduced numbers of students it is an argument that belies the length, depth and scale of the present crisis.

Firstly, it is not unique to England.  Across Europe and the Americas students and their teachers have been protesting against the same processes: the public disinvestment of higher education, rising fees and levels of student debt, the expansion of management and administrative systems for measuring efficiency or ‘excellence’ of services, the quest for new fee-paying consumers online or overseas, the casualization of academic labor, the restructuring of pensions. Yet, the destruction of the public university in England is widely seen as a test-case where these processes are unraveling faster and further than anywhere else.

Secondly, the storm has been brewing for decades. There should be no wistful nostalgia for a once pure public university. In the nineteenth century the great ‘redbrick’ provincial universities were founded on the alliance between industry and ivy. In the post-war period a good deal of academic research served a decolonizing state uneasily placed in the cold war arms race as the student protests of the late 1960s recognized.  It was hardly news then when in 1970 Edward Thompson railed against the erosion of intellectual life and academic governance by the captains of local industry that ran Warwick University, Ltd.  And, of course, despite the faux radicalism of the new universities that enabled the system to expand after the Robbins Report of 1963, universities remained the preserve of a privileged elite charged with running the welfare state with just 457,000 students in 1971 – 14% of the age group.

If the public university had always been a faustian bargain with industry and the state the rules of the game certainly began to change decisively during the 1980s when I was a student. First came the effective freeze on hiring following the Howe budget cuts of 1981. In 1993 when I was appointed to teach at the Department that had taught me it was the first permanent appointment in over a decade. Next came the stripping of the student maintenance grants I had marched unsuccessfully to protect in the mid-1980s.  And then there were the infamous administrative systems for auditing the efficient use of public funds at universities by measuring the productivity of academic labor: research outputs by the Research Assessment Exercise from 1989, teaching by the Quality Assurance Agency in 1993 renamed the Teaching Quality Assessment in 1997. One consequence of this, consistent with the merging of the former polytechnic sector in 1992, was the growing incentives on a frequently dwindling and increasingly casualized labor force to admit more students and teach ever larger classes. Inevitably these auditing systems not only greatly increased the amount of time academics spent talking or writing about the research or teaching they would do if they only had the time to do it.  It also catalyzed the staggering growth of management personnel.

New Labour only made things worse.  Faced with the systematic under-funding of the universities, the expansion of student numbers (funding per student fell 40% from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s), and the decline in real terms of academic salaries, they answered the call of the last official review of the funding of higher education handed from one government to the other – the Dearing Report. If Dearing enabled the introduction of a £1,000 for tuition (and the final abolition of the maintenance grant in 1999), by 2006 it had increased to a variable rate up to £3,000. The final indignity came with the shift from the RAE measurement of academic’s research productivity – which, in the name of generating ‘output’ had arguably produced a great deal of increasingly specialized and unexciting publications – to a concern with its utility or ‘impact’ under the absurdly named Research Excellence Framework from 2008.  Unsurprisingly, as universities now answered to the Department of Business, Skills and Innovation, impact was measured in increasingly narrow and economistic terms.

Before rushing to join the denunciations of our short-sighted and philistine politicians we have to accept that no-one within the English university sector emerges from this process with much dignity.  Administrators have grown fat, plumping up their personnel, enlarging their office and buildings, as well as inflating their salaries.  Most damagingly they meekly accepted the economistic logics that drove the auditing of productivity and were naive enough to believe that the introduction of fees would supplement, not replace, state funding.  They have turned away from the public they are supposed to serve in the quest for new ‘markets’: professional schools, overseas students, and creation of empires with institutions that franchise their degrees.

The Last Professors of the public university have hardly fared better. They have been only too content to learn and internalize the new rules of the game in the name of self-advancement.  I was one of the new breed of entrepreneurial academics who had only ever worked in this system. I quickly learnt that research grants came to those who spoke whatever language the research councils were speaking in, that one had to recruit postgraduates to generate income, that quantity not quality of publications was the measure of scholarly productivity.  Those who went on research leave or won big grants for research projects were happy to hire replacements and assistants on short-term contracts.  At the opposite end others seemed content to become stars, to play musical chairs as institutions competed for prestige through big names with long CVs of publications, and to see their professorial salaries climb into the stratosphere in the name of their new market value.

The past twelve months has seen many wake up from this bad dream.  As respected individuals, programs and Departments – all festooned in the baubles of research excellence and prestige indicators – have been cut students and their teachers have mobilized. There have been marches, protests, online petitions, teach-ins and occupations.  These struggles have been very local – at Sussex, Middlesex, King’s College, etc – but those involved were in conversation with or at least virtually connected to protests elsewhere in Berlin, Berkeley and Buenos Aires.  It has been on these front-lines that the defense of the public university has begun to be articulated. And it has been the targeting of the arts and humanities in the cuts that has made it possible.

The humanities, along with the arts and even the interpretive social sciences, have become the true test of the public value of higher education. As the recession grips market models of utility and efficiency have surely been exposed as a dangerous fallacy so this is a good moment to re-articulate the purpose and role of humanities and social sciences in ways that justify renewed public investment in them.  We could have expected more from those like the British Academy or Arts and Humanities Research Board that institutionally represent the humanities in the UK. Instead, they have effectively caught themselves in arguments about economic impact and the capacity to aid national economic recovery that they are doomed to lose (see the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Leading the World and the British Academy’s The Public Value of the Humanities). We should not be surprised then that the Browne Report recommends the complete withdrawal of public funding for the teaching of the arts, humanities and social sciences in contrast to the STEM subjects that will continue to be supported.

The defense of public universities is intricately tied to arguments that can establish the public value of the humanities.  We need to get beyond the hand-wringing of those who believe only philistines require the humanities to be justified just as much as the meek reproduction of the government’s own vocabularies of impact and value.  We can and should remind the world that it is our classes that students want to take.  Despite a decade of the rhetorical marginalization of our disciplines in the UK as not relevant there are more studying in the arts, humanities and social sciences (1,073,465 in 2008/9) than in the STEM subjects (829,115) and they are growing at a faster rate (a 28% increase since 2001/2 as opposed to 20% increase for STEM).  Indeed, in all likelihood, the arts, humanities and socials sciences are cross-subsidizing the more expensive STEM fields that teach fewer students in more resource heavy infrastructures and laboratories.

Why then do we face increased demand from students for the arts, humanities and social sciences?  There is no one reason why students take these classes and we do not need a one-size fits all justification of their public value. There are for sure those that rightly view these subject areas as helping them prepare for the world of work without necessarily providing a clear career trajectory in the social field or the knowledge and culture industries.  Students recognize that even vocational training can not ensure life-long careers any longer. Instead they require a set of skills – of critical thought and analysis, of reading and digesting materials quickly, of making presentations and convincing arguments across a range of media – that equip them for a flexible labor market in which they may work across multiple sectors.

We need, however, not stop at these instrumental ends.  We should be gratified to recognize that students are no less concerned with becoming citizens of the world.  They realize that the humanities provide them with not just an education in the issues and problems that face our global society but the forms of analysis that allow us to connect our particular local experiences to sometimes global processes.  They also provide the language training necessary for us to understand the perspectives of other cultures.  No less importantly, given the democratic deficit and seemingly growing disenchantment with our political system, the humanities teach our students the critical skills they require to become active and valued citizens of our democratic life.   Often they teach them that it is possible to think of themselves in new ways, to discover a new identity and to forge around it a politics they share with others that challenges and enriches our democracy.

Finally, the humanities, like the arts and social sciences, offer us the opportunity to think otherwise.  In an age in which the financialization of everyday life appears to demand an economic value is attached to everything we need to be reminded that this was not always the case.  The humanities speak to different systems of value, different orders of pleasure and enjoyment, that we can all enjoy – of imagination, beauty, laughter and wonder.  It is these qualities afterall that make us fully human, that enable us to appreciate what is unique about our own culture as well as what it is we hold in common with the rest of humanity.

A good deal is at stake.  We must defend the vision of a publicly funded university able to support classes in subjects that do not generate economic benefits. Economic utility is not the measure of who we are or who we want to become.

James Vernon

Words, £s, and the UK higher ed budget cuts

These are two Worldle ‘word clouds’ derived from the same UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) section (pp. 51-53) of the UK Government’s Spending Review (2010), which was just released an hour ago on 20 October. The messages should be viewed in conjunction with the actual text (of course), along with the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance (released on 12 October 2010). Deliberations about the tangible implications of the outlined budget cuts can be gleaned from the Times Higher Education site, the Guardian‘s spending review site, and the Universities UK site. Times Higher Education notes, ominously:

Government funding for higher education is to be cut by 40 per cent over four years, suggesting that public funding for teaching in the arts, humanities and social sciences may come to an end.

The Comprehensive Spending Review unveiled today includes a reduction in the higher education budget of £2.9 billion – from £7.1 billion to £4.2 billion – by 2014-15.

The Treasury says in a statement that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which oversees higher education, will “continue to fund teaching for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects”.

However, no mention is made of other subjects.

Cuts, and types of cuts, that don’t exactly match up to the frequency of positive terms in the above word cloud. On this note I was discussing the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance with a very senior London-based corporate leader the other day and he told me:

Yes, the outlook for UK universities is grim. Given that they are one of the few remaining areas where the UK is world class (and excluding the now tarnished financial sector), even accepting that the government deficit needs to be reduced, I question the rationale for these cuts.

As well put as it could be.

Kris Olds