25 March 2010

Skimming the UCOF proposals

As widely reported, the proposals contained in the preliminary report of the UC Commission on the Future, are numerous and varied.  Here are a few highlights, beginning with the good parts.
  • Continue the University's commitment to the Top 1/8, which promises the top 12.5% of high school graduates in California admission to a UC campus.
  • Continued commitment to financial aid for low-income students.
  • Increased graduate enrollment, to bring in line with the proportion of graduate students to undergraduates at peer research institutions.
  • Establish financial aid eligibility for undocumented students.
  • Give students a multi-year tuition (the standard term to replace "fee") schedule, so as to avoid mid-year increases like the one from last November.
All of these are laudable and clear goals, but none of the above address the financial situation of the university. When it comes to pointing to a possible solution to the current budget crisis, the Commission's recommendations are often vague, outlandish, controversial, or all of the above:
  • Increased enrollment of non-resident students, ranging from 5% to 15% of total enrollment, possibly displacing California students. 
  • Increase the newly-christened tuition by 5%, 10%, or 10% or  (according to different scenarios) a year for five years, bringing tuition to $13,148, $16,591, or $20,721 by 1015-16, respectively.
  • Introduction of 3-year degrees by streamlining requirements and expansion of summer session courses and AP credit transfers.
  • Exploration of online courses, the holy grail of financially challenged institutions.
  • Revision and renegotiation of Indirect Cost Recovery (IRC) formulas, based on the principle that externally supported research must include 100% of indirect costs.
  • Expansion of self-supporting programs, e.g., Executive MBA's.
  • Allow externally supported researchers to buy out their teaching from their grants, and hiring non-ladder faculty to "backfill" those researchers' vacated teaching.
  • Explore the possibility of allowing different campuses to set different tuition levels.
  • Promote a set of administrative "best practices" to eliminate administrative redundancies and bring about efficiencies at all levels. 
What is most striking about these proposal is how vague they are. The last point, concerning "administrative best practices," for instance, is just an empty slogan unless substantiated by clear examples and precise criteria of applicability. Other proposals are bound to be controversial with the faculty: implemementing 3-year degrees would require strictly holding faculty and departments to pre-set teaching load (a number being circulated is 900 credit hours a year for each faculty member). Similarly, insisting on 100% indirect cost recovery will not ingratiate the science faculty at all.

The proposal that perhaps most endangers the UC system as it was originally conceived is the possibility of setting differential tuition by campus. This would mean that Berkeley and Los Angeles would be able to charge private-level tuition, while reduced funding at the remaining eight campuses would gradually turn them into state schools. It would be, for all practical purposes, the end of the UC system.

The Commission's report contains a couple of significant acknowledgments, though. The first is the recognition that with less than 100% ICR, research has to be subsidized by core funds. While this might have some rational during the good times, it is less justifiable now. The other one recognizes that given the disparity among disciplines in their access to external sources, internal funding has to be prioritized towards disciplines in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

The report fails to endorse an oil severance tax targeted for higher-ed funding, the way it is used, for instance, in Texas. Instead, the report goes into some discussion of a general tax for higher education, which would be even more politically unfeasible than oil severance.

But the most basic and longest-lasting impression that one receives upon reading the report, is that it is a document which fundamentally lacks an overarching vision for the university. It's a report that puts together a number of local ideas, some of which have been circulating for years, hoping that their cumulative effect would lead the university out of the crisis. There is no reason to think so. The recommendations are vague, politically controversial, and occasionally contradictory.

Only the articulation of a comprehensive plan, guided by some clear and fundamental principles, would have a chance of bringing together the different constituencies in the university. The way the recommendations are formulated right now, they will only pit students against administrators, science faculty against humanities faculty, and top-tier campuses against the lower-tier ones.

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