California's Public Universities
Excellence For Fewer
California, long a leader in public
higher education, is now privatising it
Septemer 11, 2011
Nine of the ten campuses of the University of
California-led by Berkeley-once again made it into an
annual ranking of the world's leading universities,
published last month by Shanghai Jiao Tong University
in China. All's well in Californian higher education,
it might seem.
But that is not what Pat Brown or Clark Kerr would say,
were they alive today. They were, respectively,
governor of the state and president of the University
of California (UC) in 1960, when California adopted a
"master plan" that became an international model. Their
aim was not only to have excellent public universities,
but to give the state's population nearly universal and
free access to them. Some pupils would enter so-called
community colleges for a two-year vocational programme,
others one of the (now 23) campuses of the California
State University (CSU), and the best might go to a UC
In order to assure access for all, tuition charges were
banned-only "fees" for some costs other than education
were allowed. Most funding was to come from taxpayers.
The premise was that higher education was a public good
for the state, which was nursing its own future
entrepreneurs and taxpayers. As Mr Kerr put it, the
universities were "bait to be dangled in front of
industry, with drawing power greater than low taxes or
That consensus has been upended. In 1990 the state paid
78% of the cost of educating each student. That ratio
dropped to 47% last year, and will fall even more
during the current academic year, after the latest
round of budget cuts, overseen by Jerry Brown, the
current governor and son of Pat Brown. In some ways,
California has now inverted the priorities of the older
Brown's era. Spending on prisons passed spending on
universities in around 2004.
This has led to concerns that the public universities
might lose their excellence. It takes money to attract
the best professors, and the best students follow them.
An alternative to worse public universities, however,
is quasi-privatised ones. That seems to be the route
taken in California.
Thus students will this year, for the first time, pay
more for tuition than the state gives in funding. This
follows years of tuition fee increases far steeper than
the average at American public universities (see
chart). A place at a UC campus can easily now cost
$13,000, or $31,000 including housing given
California's high costs.
To raise other revenues, the various campuses also
admit ever more out-of-state students (who pay three
times more) and target rich alumni for more donations.
Led by the business and law schools, they behave
increasingly like private universities, in other words.
This strategy retains pockets of excellence. But it
also runs counter to the philosophy of the master plan,
by pricing ever more Californian families out of a
place. The state now ranks 41st in the number of
college degrees awarded for every 100 of its high
Clark Kerr's logic is thus being reversed, as the
universities produce fewer Californian company
founders, inventors and taxpayers. The Public Policy
Institute of California, a think-tank, reckons that the
state's industry will face a shortage of 1m graduates
by 2025. Employers will surely take note.
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