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A matter of life or death in the court of public opinion

A crucial referendum could decide the future of higher education in California. Jon Marcus reports

Long considered to be one of the finest public higher education systems in the world, the University of California has produced 36 Nobel laureates. Its many other distinctions include research responsible for more than 2,500 patents and graduates who have helped to drive the global technology revolution.

But the system’s 10 campuses, which include UC Berkeley and UC Los Angeles, have fallen oddly silent of late. Summer courses have been cancelled and academic staff sent on furlough.

Years of budget cuts have meant that class sizes and tuition fees have increased dramatically. The number of advisers has been slashed and even class assignments have been scaled back because of a shortage of paid graduate assistants.

As the economy flounders and tax revenues plummet, the state’s higher education sector - encompassing the University of California system, the separate California State University system and community colleges - has suffered billions of dollars’ worth of cuts in public budget allocations.

In the US, public universities are funded by state governments rather than by the federal administration. And California’s budget crisis is particularly severe.

Accordingly, the state’s governor, Jerry Brown, and its legislature have devised a rescue plan - Proposition 30, the Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act. It aims to use income and sales taxes to generate money for public services.

Observers say that if it is not approved by voters in a referendum this autumn, the damage already done to the UC tradition of high-quality, low-cost education will become irreversible.

“Enough is enough,” says Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the not-for-profit Campaign for College Opportunity. “Will there be permanent damage to quality and our system? It will depend on whether or not we stop the cuts.”

This recent crisis follows a long downward slide, punctuated by the announcement of the imminent retirements of two key players: Charles B. Reed, the politically savvy chancellor of the 23-campus, 427,000-student CSU system, and Jack Scott, his counterpart at the 112-campus, 2.6 million-student community college system.

These announcements followed the publication of a high-profile report from California Competes, a group of business and civic leaders. The Road Ahead warns of the economic consequences of continued funding cuts, but it also criticises inefficiency at the state’s public universities.

At the same time, there have been demands from students and some politicians for a tuition freeze - a concession that has been granted by UC subject to the passing of the funding rescue plan.

The planned state budget promises some relief - but only if tax-weary voters approve an increase in the sales tax and income tax on Californians earning more than $250,000 (£160,000) a year.

If approved, these new taxes would raise an estimated $8.5 billion a year to be shared among higher education and other public services. A poll in June by the independent Field Poll organisation shows that 52 per cent of voters support the idea, with 35 per cent opposed. But its advocates consider this to be a dangerously narrow margin - and if voters reject Proposition 30 in November, not only will universities get no additional funding, they will also suffer further automatic cuts.

“Certainly, if the ballot does not pass, we are in an even deeper hole,” says Lande Ajose, deputy director of California Competes.

The Road Ahead shows that about 3 million students will graduate from California’s universities between now and 2025. But in a state that is home to global technology giants such as Apple and Google, more than 5 million educated workers will be needed over the same period, leaving a shortfall of more than 2 million graduates.

“We cannot sacrifice our state’s future,” says state senator Darrell Steinberg. “We have a high bar to remain competitive on a national and global playing field.”

Besides, say higher education activists, the public universities contribute $4.50 to the economy for every $1 invested in them. And UC and CSU graduates pay about $12 billion in state taxes annually.

The world watches

Given the prominence of California’s universities, the state’s debate about supporting public higher education is being scrutinised widely.

“The country and certainly the world benefits from a lot of the innovation that happens here, including the innovation of providing an education broadly to as many people as possible, which in many parts of the world is revolutionary,” Siqueiros says. “California is a model for that.”

And while the problems in California may be extreme, they are similar to issues being faced in at least 40 of the other 49 US states where public universities have also had their funding cut.

“On the policy front, there is a sense that if something can be done in a state as diverse and as large as California, then it can be done elsewhere,” Siqueiros says.

The challenge is considerable. The budget for the UC system was cut by another $750 million over the past year alone and is now at the same level as it was 15 years ago - when it enrolled 75,000 fewer students.

Two-thirds of the CSU campuses have capped enrolment and placed restrictions on admission at a time when the number of college-age Californians continues to rise. And community colleges will turn down 200,000 students this year because they do not have room for them.

These institutions have dismissed academics and support staff or sent them on furlough; raised class sizes; and significantly increased once modest tuition costs and fees. Now they are considering eliminating entire departments.

Squeezed middle

Meanwhile, spiralling tuition fees have spurred fears that, while low-income students will continue to qualify for financial aid and high-income students will be able to pay the full price, those in the middle will be squeezed out.

“If we continue to cut the university system, we are either going to have poor quality or we are going to have a system (primarily) for upper-middle-class and wealthy students,” Siqueiros says. “It’s never going to be free again, or cheap, but how do we make it so that people can still go to college?”

If the universities had hoped to garner public sympathy for the losses they have absorbed, they have been disappointed: their own performance is not being spared criticism.

Even advocates of the state’s public higher education system say there is room for improvement and that years of draconian funding cuts have left long-standing shortcomings unaddressed.

Only 52 per cent of students in the US graduate from standard four-year courses within six years, for example, according to the national advocacy group Complete College America.

“Completion matters to all of us who are advocates of higher education,” Siqueiros says. “We want that person to walk across the stage at graduation, not just get in the door. And we are not waiting for more money to push those kinds of reforms.”

The universities insist that the message has been received.

“Colleges are complex organisations that value tradition and have entrenched interests, which can make change difficult,” says Eloy Ortiz Oakley, president of Long Beach City College. “But the status quo will not serve the interests of students, the taxpayers or the economy.”

But the question remains whether voters are convinced of that.

“It’s just not that sexy an issue relative to other pressing issues,” California Competes’ Ajose says. “One of the challenges we face is how to draw attention to higher education as a critical thing for the state to pay attention to as it tries to manage all these other boiling-over crises.”

If the voters decide to reject the new taxes, Siqueiros argues, “we’re saying that it’s OK to turn away hundreds of thousands of students who are otherwise eligible for and interested in going to college, and we’re OK with telling businesses that want to hire educated workers that they may not be able to find them”.

She adds: “Sometimes I wonder now whether we are going to continue to be a leader in a positive way, or a leader in the sense of continuing to cut.”

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