The serious slide for UC began with the deal between UC and CSU with the Governor on funding of higher education, the 2004 “HIGHER EDUCATION COMPACT: Agreement Between Governor Schwarzenegger, the University of California, and the California State University 2005-06 through 2010-11,” which represented a fundamental shift in the model for supporting higher education in California, away from viewing higher education as a public good towards a private good.
While UC has a history of reaching multi-year funding plans with the Governor (called “compacts,”) the agreement with Governor Schwarzenegger contained a fundamental shift away from the state general fund onto private sources: student fees and other private sources. It states, “In order to help maintain quality and enhance academic and research programs, UC will continue to seek additional private resources and maximize other fund sources available to the University to support basic programs. CSU will do the same in order to enhance the quality of its academic programs.” Until then, the state was accepted as the primary source of support for “basic programs” with private sources being used for additional initiatives.
The Compact commits UC and CSU to increasing reliance on (private) student fees for base support.
The shift to using fees to finance UC (and CSU) is also explicit: the Compact states, “The student fee policy contained in this Compact assumes that UC and CSU will retain student fee revenue without a corresponding reduction in State funds which, together with State funds provided each year, will be used to help meet their budgetary needs as well as help the segments recover from the current fiscal crisis.” While, on its face, this statement sounds like an increase in funding for higher education, the Compact linked these fee increases to even larger reductions (about one-third) in state support for basic operations.
In addition, the Compact committed UC and CSU to increase fees at least as fast as the rise in personal income, which is about twice the rate of inflation. Because incomes have increased most rapidly among the wealthy, this policy made higher education less affordable for most people.
If the Compact was so bad, why did UC and CSU accept it?
The first reason was that Governor Schwarzenegger was threatening even bigger cuts if UC and CSU did not accept the Compact. More important, cognizant UC (and, presumably CSU) budget officials knew that there would be a major budget crisis starting around 2008, and believed that the Compact would protect UC and CSU from large cuts at that time.
Of course, when the budget crisis came in 2008, Governor Schwarzenegger simply walked away from the deal. Other than one comment at the July 2009 Regents’ meeting from Regent Blum, there has been no effort to exact a political price for failing to honor his commitment.
Thus, the debate over higher education should not be framed as a debate over how to allocate scarce state resources during difficult times, but as what it actually is: an ideological debate over the nature of higher education.
The central policy document guiding higher education policy in California has been the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, which specified the coordinated roles of UC, CSU and the community colleges and established the system that guaranteed every California student an affordable (initially free) education. The Master Plan clearly established higher education as a public good provided by the state for its citizens.
While fees have increased over time since then, the Compact represents the first time that UC and CSU accepted the idea that the costs of higher education should be shifted from public onto private sources.
The real question is: Should higher education be treated as a public good or should it be viewed as a private good to be paid for by its customers (students and their families) and voluntary private donors?
No one in UC’s leadership is effectively advocating for restoring the Master Plan and state funding.
The unspoken policy at the UC Office of the President (UCOP) and the Regents has been that state funding will continue to fall. (This is not an unreasonable assumption if one passively accepts the current environment in which UCOP budget planning focuses on keeping the Governor happy, a governor who sees higher education as a private good and opposes new taxes and where there is additionally a requirement for a 2/3 vote to pass tax increases.) The problem is that no one has even raised the issue in a consistent and powerful way, which is the necessary first step in changing the political environment.
Indeed, indications are that the policy focus of the Regents and other leaders is to accommodate UC to a privatized model, which, as experienced in Michigan, will probably mean continuing declines in quality and fragmentation of the system.
What about UCOP’s public relations activities about the value of UC to the people of California?
UCOP is accelerating public relations activities directed at informing the public about UC’s contribution to California. This campaign did not starkly highlight the policy choice made by the Governor to shift from the Master Plan to a privatized model for higher education.
It is also possible that this campaign could even be counterproductive, if the public comes away with a feeling that UC is continuing to make important contributions to California despite reductions in funding (which would mean that the reductions did not actually create serious problems).
Another problem has been the fragmented response of people concerned about the future of public higher education in California.
There has been little coordination between UC and CSU (much less the community colleges) in an integrated campaign to reinstate the Master Plan. UC faculty response has been largely through the Academic Senate, which has generally supported the Administration and can not be an independent public voice. Students have been largely concerned with annual fee increases, without considering the long-term policy change embodied in the Compact. UC has not sought to make common cause with the unions representing its employees.
What are the key strategic steps to change the public debate?
Because of the central role of the governor in setting higher education policy and the need for a high profile public debate on the future of the Master Plan and higher education in California, we need to find a way to make this an important issue to the governor.
UC and CSU leadership also need to be honest with the public and public policy makers about the true nature of the choice before California in terms of the future of higher education, rather than continuing to allow the system to slide into an inadequately funded privatized model without any explicit decision being made to do so.
UC Academic Senate, Current Budget Trends and The Future of the University of California, May 2006 (The “Futures” Report)
UC Academic Senate, The Cuts Report, March 2008
Council of UC Faculty Associations, How to Restore the Promise, March 2008
Tom Mortenson, California at the Edge of a Cliff: The Failure to Invest in Public Higher Education is Crushing the Economy and Crippling Our Kids’ Future, January 7, 2009