Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Free Public Higher Ed or the Regents’ Way

My book Why Public Higher Education Should be Free is now available, and its central claims address many of the issues brought up at the last UC regents meeting.  My main argument is that if we just used current state and federal funding for higher ed in a more rational way, we could get rid of the need for tuition, student aid, and student loans.  I also argue that anything short of this holistic solution will fail to solve any of the basic issues.  Of course, we now live in a time of diminished political expectations, and so it is hard for most people to even imagine any large new governmental solution.  In short, after forty years of anti-government government, even our leaders can only think about short-term solutions and half-measures.

President Yudof’s farewell speech at the regents meeting was a great example of leaderless leadership.  Form his perspective, all that we can do is manage each crisis and try to find a way to maintain the status quo.  While he still holds out some hope that online education will be a real game-changer for higher ed, he is now even doubting the effectiveness of this possible solution.  In fact, during the regents’ discussion  (minute 28) of the new new UC online program, Yudof brought up the recent problems with Udacity and San Jose State University.  He even stated that distance education might not work, and we need to ask the students and faculty on the campuses if they even want online courses.

Yudof’s doubts were ignored by a series of regents who pontificated about the need to do this online thing faster and to use the money provided by the governor to ramp up the provision of online courses for UC students.  Of course, the governor never really provided additional funds for online education; instead he simply earmarked $10 million from money that was already going to the UC.  Next, the governor vetoed his own earmark, but the regents have seemed to have forgotten this fact.  Worst off all, Lt. Governor Newsome continued his promotion of all things digital by urging the UC to stop moving at a glacial pace.  In other words, he wants the UC faculty to give up its shared governance in order to quickly move to a system of education that is unproven and could result in both significant cost increases and reduced quality.

As I argue in my book, all of the problems in higher ed start with the failure to make high-quality education and research the major priority of these institutions.  My central point is that if you do not dedicate most of the funding to these core missions, you end up spending most of the money on expensive side projects like athletics, sponsored research, administration, and amenities.  Moreover, this lack of attention to the core mission results in non-educators running the show, and in the UC case, this can be witnessed by the regents’, the new president’s, and the state politicians’ lack of higher education experience and knowledge. 

Without a focus on improving the state of actual education, we end up with huge classes, reductive multiple-choice exams, and disengaged students and faculty.  In turn, this poor instructional quality opens the door for massive online courses and the call to move more students through the system in a faster and cheaper way.  Yet, on a positive side, the whole debate over MOOCs is helping to create a public conversation about how we define quality teaching and learning, and so it is possible that we may be able to rededicate our institutions of higher education to high-quality instruction and research.

While some will interpret my book as another attack on useless academic research, I try to make it clear that I also want to defend the importance of academic research, but I want to distinguish between corrupted sponsored research and the academic pursuit of knowledge and truth.   Just as our political system has been corrupted by the way we fund campaigns, our academic system has been distorted by the way we fund research.Study after study has shown that many research experiments in the sciences cannot be replicated, and one reason for the failure of science to be scientific is that researchers are beholden to the people paying for their research.  In order to correct this system, we need a commitment by the states and the federal government to provide funding for pure research; we also have to stop the hidden process of subsidizing expensive research programs by siphoning money out of undergraduate instruction.

None of these problems will be fixed if we continue to be led by leaders with no commitment to basic research and instruction.       

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Neoliberal Attack on CCSF

In one of the most dramatic and devastating developments in higher education this year, San Francisco City College has been warned that it will be stripped of its accreditation an forced to close next summer if does not convince its accreditors that it has made certain required changes.  The California Federation Teachers, which represents over 1,000 faculty at this college is protesting this potential disaster, which could throw close to 90,000 students out of higher education in the Bay area.    

Reading through the accreditation report, I was struck by the lack of discussion of recent state budget cuts to higher education in California.  In a now classic neoliberal two-step move, the state first reduces the funding of a public institution, and then later, someone applies some arbitrary assessment measures to declare that the institution is failing its public mission. 

In another neoliberal gesture, the report bemoans the relatively low level of upper administration and the high level of shared governance and faculty involvement.  Not only does the report believe that too much of the school’s money is being spent on faculty and staff, but the accreditors believe that only a top-down management style can deal with the college’s fiscal and academic shortcomings.      

If CCSF is forced to close, you can be sure that the students will be pushed towards for-profit schools that live off of governmental funding, student debt, and empty promises of future employment.  For more info, click here

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Privatizing UC

Several recent moves of privatization in the UC system should push us to ask what is behind this movement and what is wrong with it.  While the privatization of part of the UCLA Anderson business school has received some attention, very few people have examined the new private entity UCLA has established to help cash in on innovations. Moreover, it looks like Senator Steinberg’s attempt to push public institutions to use private online providers is still alive.  All of these changes rely on the same transformation of a public good into the hands of a private or private-public management. 

In the case of UCLA Anderson Business School, the main change is that the program, in consultation with the president of the UC system, will be able to set tuition levels and keep all of its revenue except for 15%, which will  go to central administration. Some of the problems with this move are indicative of issues facing the privatization movement in general: 1) there is a loss of being part of a shared public institution; 2) after years of state support, high tuition costs may force out state students; 3) this process is being driven by upper-management and goes against the explicit recommendations of the system-wide faculty senate; and 4) it is unclear if the self-sustaining entity will actually be self-sustaining.  Even though the school will have to pay 15% of its tuition revenue to the university, we do not know if this is enough to cover the cost of financing the debt for building construction, the use of administrative services, or other day-to-day expenses. 

In the case of the new UCLA innovation center, the East Bay Express has a long article on how this push for privatization may place the fruits of university research in the hands of private individuals. At the last regents meeting, a vote was taken to create Newco as a private entity lodged within the university to help monetize university-sponsored research.  Like the privatization of the UCLA business school, this move could change the priorities and structure of a previously public entity.  For example, a new body of outside corporate administrators may not only privatize the profits from this public university, but they could also prevent new discoveries and innovations from reaching the broader public.  There is also the fear that outside corporations will profit as the university takes on the most expensive and risky parts of the research and design process. 

In the neoliberal tradition of privatizing profits and socializing losses, we see how contemporary capitalism is focused on privatizing previously public institutions.  For instance, the recent push for online education is motivated in part by the idea that large amounts of money can be made if public resources go to private companies.  Although Senator Steinberg has claimed that SB 520 prevents public funds from going to private online providers, it is clear that these private companies are not getting into the education business to simply provide a public service.  

The underlying threat in all of these privatizing moves is that the university loses its meaning and purpose.  Instead of being a public institution that stands outside of private interests, the university can no longer offer an alternative to market-based values and thinking.  Ultimately, in the quest to generate more non-public revenue, the university loses sight of the common good.