Public universities: we must preserve a force for good

As state universities struggle in the face of funding cuts, we must not forget their mission and influence on civilisation itself

October 6, 2016
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America’s great public universities are in trouble. Trouble that has left them on the brink of “irreparable damage”, according to the president of the Association of American Universities, and that amounts to a “national tragedy”, in the view of a former secretary of labor.

Mary Sue Coleman and Robert Reich issued the warnings during the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit last week, which addressed the issue of “world-class universities and the public good”.

The meeting focused in part on the specific financial problems in the US. State governments have cut funding remorselessly during lean years. The observation that there are no votes in higher education, and the expectation that universities can make savings and find alternative sources of income, have played a part.

But there was also a sense during our summit at the University of California, Berkeley that, like the morning fog in San Francisco Bay, the acceptance of higher education as a public good has somehow evaporated.

The result is that public universities find themselves withering in the midday sun along with their mission to deliver affordable and accessible education that is also defined by excellence. One of the distinctions between the cash-starved publics and the US’ wealthy private universities is the understanding that the former are the engines of social mobility.

Yet, in the face of state funding cuts, average tuition at four-year publics has risen 136 per cent since 2000, and attending Harvard University may now cost less, once financial aid is taken into account.

For some larger public universities, public funding now constitutes less than 10 per cent of income, while elite privates with income from alumni enjoy huge public subsidies.

As Reich explained at our summit, the tax break applied to gifts means that a significant chunk of a private donation is in effect money deducted from tax revenues. By his calculation, the indirect public subsidy for Princeton University now stands at $26,000 (£19,972) per student, compared with the direct subsidy of about $7,000 per student at Berkeley.

At the same time, increasing selectivity at the best public universities is fuelling concerns that their legitimacy will fade further still, and along with it their chances of reversing the dwindling public investment.

One response to these trends may be for private universities to expand their enrolment (and financial aid programmes) to address the traditional focus of the great public systems.

Ron Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University, has written about this convergence and the emergence of what he calls the “public-regarding private”: institutions with a civic-minded mission and not-for-profit structure.

But while calling for changes to the creaking structures of the public system, he also cautions against discarding it, abandoning the heterogeneity that has served the US so well.

The specifics here are unique to the US, but the underlying issues are not.

Another speaker at our summit was Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, who talked about the importance of the global public good and the need to build and maintain trust.

If universities are to continue to play their fundamental role, shaping not only the lives of graduates but – let’s look at the big picture – civilisation itself, then the concept of the public good is going to have to make a comeback.

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