“Education is a Public Good”
UCSD Faculty Coalition Statement
In California, every student is promised an affordable place at an appropriate institution of higher education: local community colleges open to everyone; state universities providing general education and the skills and languages needed for a high-tech society; and research universities at the forefront of academic knowledge production. The 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education in California created this model for postsecondary education that has become universally admired around the world, and the highest quality public education has fueled California’s prosperity for three generations. The University of California, Cal State campuses, and our community colleges account for 80% of college degrees, and have educated the workers, entrepreneurs, inventors, doctors, lawyers, writers, and artists who have distinguished California's innovative economy and society.
But the future of this robust and reliable system is now in the deepest crisis of its history. Since 2001, state funding of the Cal State system has fallen 21%, while state support for the University of California has plummeted 30%. California was once one of the leading states in per student expenditure, but it is now 24th in the nation; in the last 8 years, state aid per UC student has dropped 50%. This year’s drastic cuts to the UCs, the CSUs, and the community colleges endanger the very livelihood of our state. The entire California public suffers and pays more when fewer high school seniors go to college, degrees take longer and cost more to earn, and universities can no longer attract the brightest graduate students, researchers, and teachers.
The UC Committee on the Future, tasked with recommending changes to the university system, employs the traditional economic concept of “competing goods” as it deliberates over how to deliver access, affordability, and quality. The value of each is assessed in terms of its price tag and then weighed against the other “goods.” Asking how to balance these “competing goods” is tantamount to inquiring whether we prefer to educate fewer and wealthier students, and to collect higher educational fees, or whether we will permit our students’ educational experience to be inferior, their preparation more mediocre, and their degrees less competitive. Under none of these outcomes, will UC remain a true “public” university.
There is a more fundamental contradiction between a perspective that understands higher education as a market-based industry – i.e., a business that offers a private asset that can be priced, bought, and sold – and one that upholds the value of higher education as a shared public good, not merely individually possessed or privately profitable, but a good that contributes in myriad ways to the betterment of the larger society. The Master Plan epitomizes this latter view. To employ the notion of “competing goods,” uses the market metaphor of private goods and eclipses the understanding of education as a public good. Indeed, to speak of “competing goods” in relation to higher education indicates that the contradiction between the market and the public good perspectives may be the central conflict of our times – not only at the heart of the current predicament of higher education, but also of our current national debates about the right to health care, sustainable environment, infrastructure, access to honorable work – in short, the nature of the social contract within democratic society itself.
In the University of California, this year’s budget cuts already led the Regents to raise student fees 32%, which has resulted in reductions of students admitted to the UC and the number of classes offered. Hiring is frozen, faculty and staff have been required to take furloughs, and many staff positions have been consolidated or eliminated. Next year’s planned cuts, projected to be between 10-20%, will only deepen these downward trends. These severe measures threaten the core mission of the university: to be the main provider of undergraduate education to the state’s best high school graduates, to educate graduate students, as well as to maintain its ability to attract and keep a first rate faculty and continue being a world-class research center.
The UC contributes to California’s economy and society in manifold ways, not only through the education of its students but also by developing new industries that create jobs, distributing technological innovation, providing health care through its hospitals, producing critical knowledge and analysis of local, national, and global trends. The UC campuses have collectively produced more Nobel laureates than any other university in the country. There are approximately 1.5 million UC alumni, with 75% of them living and working in California, contributing to the state’s vitality.
The recognition of the public benefits of higher education has a long history, since public universities contribute resources to society as well as to individuals: from the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Acts of 1862 and 1890 that led to the creation of over 70 public universities including the UC to the GI Bill after the Second World War and its extension through the Higher Education Act of 1972, and the later Pell Grants system, which extended access to and affordability of higher education. Indeed, the California Constitution chartered the UC as a “public trust.”
This long history of public support for education demonstrates a widespread understanding that higher education provides rich benefits to society beyond the narrower benefits to the individual student. People with higher education enjoy higher salaries and benefits, better and more consistent rates of employment, savings, status, and social mobility, as well as improved working conditions, health and longer life expectancy, and better quality of life for their children. In addition, higher education affords the society and economy increased tax revenues, workforce flexibility, productivity, lesser crime rates and reduced reliance on welfare. Education supports full citizenship in all its dimensions: more involvement in community service and charitable giving, richer and more inclusive civic life, greater appreciation of diversity, and heightened social cohesion. These private and public benefits co-exist happily. This is what the public good is all about.
Democracy gap: The abandonment of affordable public education for all qualified students threatens to undermine democracy itself. Public access to education is necessary to the formation of an empowered citizenry who can exercise judgment and participate in public decisions, not only decisions choosing what is good for individuals, but what is good for the society as a whole. The withdrawal of state responsibility for public education, and other social services that contribute to the public good, makes engaged, collective self-government by the people less and less possible.
Social diversity gap: Public access to education means offering to all qualified students the opportunity to learn, but the current proposals to raise student fees, increase non-resident enrollment to generate revenue, restructure course offerings, and reduce admissions will make higher education much more exclusive and far less egalitarian. Shifting the costs of education onto students and their families effectively exclude, by pricing out, many poor and historically underrepresented minority students, as well as the middle class itself. Even in the best of times, few middle class California families can easily afford the planned 44% increase in college fees in two years. Though the Blue and Gold augmented financial aid will become available to families earning less than $70K a year, the plan’s reach remains limited and continues to leave large numbers of students vulnerable in these tough times. There will be disastrously widened social opportunity gaps, between the educated and the undereducated, if broad public access is not maintained. Supporting education by cutting state budget funds for prisons may in itself contribute to deeper social divides, if prisons no longer have state or public oversight, but are privatized as businesses for whom profits rise with greater incarcerated populations.
Skills gap: California depends upon a college-educated workforce, and with the retirement of the baby boomers, the state will be in dire straits. A June 2009 Public Policy Institute of California study found that by 2025, California will face a shortage of almost one million college-educated workers. While 41% of California jobs will require a bachelor’s degree, only 35% of adults will have one. But instead of growing, the institutions of higher education are now slated to cut enrollment. This “skills gap” threatens the very future of the state.
Knowledge gap: Research in natural, physical, and health sciences, the arts and humanities, and the social sciences directly fill the knowledge needs and advanced degree training needs of California communities, industry, and local governments. Tampering with this precious resource – whether reducing faculty, libraries, and laboratories, or through subsequent “brain drain” – puts everyone in peril. The university is far more than a business that produces an object or a utility that can be patented and sold, it is a institution of intellectual exchange, innovation, and interpretation that gives rise to knowledge and creativity that provides for the future. UC researchers study the oceans, earth, and stars; evaluate and solve social, cultural, political and economic problems; explain life systems and explore the frontier of the brain; and analyze the logic, meaning, form, and communication of ideas. Discovering and interpreting data, evidence, texts, and traditions, academic knowledge sustains and advances our capacities as a culture, society, and species. We need the intellectual projects that only the research university can sustain if we are to address the new questions of medical ethics, human rights, and the politics of food, water, and environment.
Global gap: Diversity and a culture of inclusion are as crucial to education as they are to democratic society: learning with and from students in a racially, economically, and culturally mixed classroom prepares students to enter not only California’s multicultural society, but the increasingly global society. In order for young Californians to excel as global citizens, they must learn the languages, cultures, and traditions of the world; an undergraduate education includes learning something of the societies in China, India, Mexico, Egypt, Italy and elsewhere – all modern nations with ancient histories – if these places are to be understood as partners, not only in trade, but in creating a sustainable world. Indeed, currents threats to California occur just at the moment that many universities around the world want to emulate California’s system. While California discusses a 3-year bachelor’s degree, Hong Kong is expanding its university programs from 3 to 4 years to provide for a more extensive of humanities curriculum. Western Europe is considering open-access college programs, and China is planning to inaugurate several UC-type systems. Let us understand what societies around the world recognize, i.e., that affordable, excellent college education is necessary to maintain a stable, productive, healthy society.
The crisis of our historical moment is not merely a financial one, but is a crisis in public culture, a crisis of public priorities and decision-making. That is, the conflicts between whether education is a right or a privilege, whether the university is an industry or an institution of learning, and whether we are committed to the market or to collective human survival – these signal that we are in the midst of a crisis in culture, that we have ignored so long our obligation to sustain a common public that we misrecognize ourselves, and blame our ailments on others, rather than attending to and building the public capacity for renewal.
A sparsely educated public cannot sustain true economic, social, or cultural prosperity. The prosperity of California depends upon inclusive education of its population – in primary and secondary schools, and in higher education. It is shortsighted at best, catastrophic at worst, to approach education through the straightjacket of “competing goods.” Higher education differs from the kind of conventional good, or commodity, that economists customarily recognize. The production of economic goods provides private benefits; once consumed these are gone. In contrast, all education, including higher education, is a foundational good: it is the foundation of growth, and when combined with other goods, it complements them and ensures their greater productivity; even when “consumed” for private benefit, it provides public benefits. In short, education is a gift that keeps giving.
For these reasons, we call for the restoration of the 1960 Master Plan’s vision for higher education, with core funding to support California’s commitments to high quality, affordable, and accessible higher education for all qualified students at an appropriate level of institution.
Our higher-education friendly approach can include the following:
1. The UC educates, employs, and touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of Californians. We propose to reach out to them by crafting an alliance with other citizen movements, civic organizations, public interest groups, labor unions, and other institutions of higher learning. Among these are parents working through PTAs who are anxious to ensure continued affordable access to their children when they graduate from high school, business groups seeking to ensure a steady supply of skilled employees, and labor unions representing workers affected by university consolidations. We must develop continued cooperation between the University of California (UC), the California State University (CSU), and the California Community Colleges system (CCC), all of which are part of the Master Plan for higher education and stand to lose from its abandonment in favor of a competing good approach.
2. We propose reaching out before the November 2010 elections to State Assembly, Senate and Gubernatorial candidates and asking them to pledge their support for the continued use of the Master Plan.
3. We support UC’s request to the State Assembly to restore $900 million in cuts and mobilize the public to advocate on behalf of UC.
4. We appreciate the importance of seeking a constitutional guarantee to fund public higher education at a minimum of 10 percent of the state's General Fund budget, yet we do not approve of arbitrarily linking the funding of higher education with the privatization of the prison system. The future of California’s prisons deserves its own debate.
5. Currently, California is the only state in which a two-thirds requirement allows a small minority of 34% of the voters or legislature to block budgetary decisions. We will support for the proposed 14-word California Democracy Act constitutional amendment, which proposes “all legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote.” This will restore a basic tenet of democracy, namely that the majority shall rule on matters of public good.
6. California is also the only one of the 22 major oil producing states that does not impose a severance tax on oil companies to be used for public projects, such as higher education. We support efforts to raise new revenue for the state’s universities and colleges by imposing an oil severance tax on oil companies for every barrel they produce in California.
There is no “good” more significant than the public good.