Thinking of a Master Plan

Alan Ryan on how California’s famed system might work in the UK

December 15, 2011

It is a truth universally acknowledged that universities in both the UK and the US are in trouble. Just what the trouble is, what its causes are, who is to blame for it and how universities might be rescued is another matter. Cacophony and mutual recrimination on the one hand and sullen gloom on the other seem to be the order of the day.

By way of respite, perhaps we should think of happier times and whether there’s any chance of recovering them. As fans of FDR know, Franklin D. Roosevelt stormed to victory in the presidential campaign of 1932 to a rousing chorus of Happy Days Are Here Again; it took more than optimism to dig the US out of the Great Depression, but cheerfulness did no harm.

The California Master Plan was not the only “great good moment” in higher education in the US over the past 50 years, but its implementation on one side of the Atlantic and the early days of the “plate-glass universities” on the other surely were moments when a glad confident morning seemed to have dawned.

They were different solutions to similar problems. California’s version envisaged a three-tier public higher education system, with a small number of research universities - the University of California - resting on top of around four times as many institutions mostly devoted to teaching and without doctoral programmes of their own - the California State University system. Feeding into them would be a system of community colleges with virtually open entry.

The UK version imagined that the new wave of universities would give Oxbridge, the London colleges and the older civic “redbricks” a run for their money and appeal to a new sort of student; these institutions would be fleeter of foot and more imaginative in what they taught - and how they taught it. They would combine the virtues of the American state universities and liberal-arts colleges, teaching up to the master’s level, offering multidisciplinary degrees and providing the general education that US universities set out to offer.

What California did with its articulated and centrally directed three-tier system, many people in the UK half-hoped to achieve via its binary system - that a student at a polytechnic who developed a passion for a subject they could only pursue at university might find a way to migrate. I’ve always thought that we should have adopted a California-style master plan rather than a binary system precisely because of its built-in encouragement of mobility.

The California system worked as long as there was money. Internal mobility was always a reality and still is. It is predicated on a great deal of movement from community colleges to state universities or the senior research institutions. For instance, there are twice as many students enrolled on the final two years of UC, Berkeley courses than on the first two years, and up to three-quarters of those who graduate from the state universities started somewhere else.

The squeamish among us perhaps realised only late in the day how much the Master Plan’s success owed to a Cold War bonanza. Berkeley’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory did the research upon which the US’ increasingly devastating nuclear arsenal depended, but the university also made a lot of money from managing (rather badly) the Los Alamos nuclear facilities on behalf of the federal government: less a matter of bang for your buck than bucks for a big bang.

It also owed a lot to the readiness of Californian taxpayers to cough up. When they became tax-averse, things began to go wrong. From being virtually free 30 years ago, an education at Berkeley and its peers is about to cost $25,000 (£16,000) for “in-state” students and twice that for their out-of-state counterparts.

Could we have a California-style system in the UK? I have always thought we could and should. In fact, the UK is a much more plausible environment for such a model, just because British governments are not as vulnerable to taxpayer revolts as the State of California is. The Golden State’s ability to finance its education system at any level was undermined by the passage of “Proposition 13” - the amendment to the state constitution passed in a 1978 referendum that constrained increases in the property taxes that fund schools and partially fund community colleges, too.

The high price of a UK Master Plan would be political, not financial. The state has always unequivocally been in control of California’s higher education system; the UK has always fudged the issue of how directly the government controls its academy. Those of us who are sometimes irked by our vice-chancellors would hardly be less irked by a vice-chancellor who was just doing what David Willetts, the universities and science minister, told him to do.

The California Master Plan also depended on confining doctoral programmes to the research universities; vocationally oriented MAs abound in the state institutions, but I don’t see an ukase from Willetts revoking the right of all but 40 British universities to award their own PhDs going down well.

On the other hand, a California-style model really is the only system that would reliably provide some of what Willetts seems to want: cheap, open-access foundation courses; ready migration between one sort of institution and another; and differential costs according to institutional type. However, it would come at the expense of much else that he also says he wants: less government control; more use of “for-profit” providers; and a real market in provision. Whether those contradictions are a problem with the Master Plan or Willetts’ ambitions is another question.

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