Democratic principles pull against elite desires

May 10, 2002

Dual demands on the world's leading economies for elite research and higher education opportunity for all are hard to reconcile. But Sheldon Rothblatt says there are solutions.

Democracy and higher education came together in 19th-century America and in 20th-century Britain; yet only in the past half century has the relationship become problematic. Democracy is (it is fashionable to say) more participatory now. There are a larger number of rival voices, interests, pressures and accusations, causing, says higher education expert Burton Clark, a "demand overload". Meeting educational expectations, coping with bureaucratic oversight and providing services and products in an increasingly expensive cost environment have strained academic resources.

Under our conceptions of democracy, higher education can no longer be restricted to the few. If we believe that opportunity and position are today linked to a university education, then provision must be made for the many to attend. But beyond this moral commitment is the fact that any denial of opportunity is ultimately fatal to universities because it leads to voter rebellion and anger. There are signs of that at present.

Accommodating the few is simple. From its inception, the university was never really seriously confronted by numbers. Even a century ago only about 1 per cent of the student cohort in Europe attended universities, and perhaps only about 2 per cent in the US went on to higher education of any kind. And in Britain and America, few undergraduates came from the industrial or rural working classes. As numbers were manageable, and students were recruited from the better-off sections of society, quality standards were easier to maintain.

When demand increased in Victorian England, new safeguards were designed for quality assurance. Excellent and expensive feeder schools and various competitive examinations served as meritocratic filters for higher education. An aristocratic heritage - to use the phrase broadly - favoured the establishment of some form of top-down regulation of the system of social mobility through education. And the academic community itself sought, and eventually received, parliamentary financing, preferring to align itself with church and state rather than rely on the vagaries of supply and demand. The ultimate British model rested on the legal and policy distinctions between the different types of institution demanded by the Victorian market. Research universities were separated from the others - the germs of that solution date back to the 1830s in the rows over the new University of London.

In the US, with its more open, plural and decentralised society, quality maintenance was handled differently. The ultimate American plan was to permit institutions to find their own niches in a sea of demands and live or die by their wits. This solution was consistent with consumer capitalism as it was developing on the North American continent. It suited private colleges and universities. But, as elsewhere in the world, mass demand for higher education could only be met by an investment of tax money. As successful as private higher education has become in the US, some 80 per cent of all undergraduates at present attend publicly assisted colleges and universities.

The state governments, under pressure to meet educational demands, were primarily interested in access rather than quality, meaning low-cost instruction. But quality was understandably the preoccupation of academics, at least those who were influenced by the teaching standards of English universities and the intellectual brilliance of the German universities, which some 10,000 Americans visited in the 19th century. So pockets of scholarship and excellent science appeared within the interstices of state-supported higher education, protected, if uncertainly, from political intrusion by the overall commitment of their host institutions to a democratic ethic.

A striking departure from this historic pattern appeared in California after the second world war. A dynamic, populous and wealthy state, California was profiting from extraordinary federal government investment in its economic infrastructure. The foundations of Silicon Valley were laid during the global and cold wars. Postwar demographic pressure meant that demand could not be denied. But science and technology of the best quality had made its benefits known. How could the two be combined?

The solution was oddly un-American. Market demands were accommodated through the creation of separate systems of higher education with distinct and some overlapping missions. The University of California was given a monopoly over high-cost graduate research and professional training and allowed to establish higher freshman admission requirements than the two other larger public segments, the two-year community colleges and the four and five-year colleges and universities. Each segment was allowed to grow through single-campus enrolment increases and the addition of new campuses.

The California Master Plan for Higher Education of 1960 became a model for the nation, but it was not uniformly adopted. Elsewhere a number of different kinds of state systems were built, not necessarily clearly differentiated or granted the constitutional freedom of the University of California, which the citizens of the state had given to it after a ruinous dispute in the 1870s. The result has been an institution ranking with the best in the US, particularly at postgraduate levels, and unique in using one quality model for all of its nine (soon to be ten) campuses.

So in the 1960s Britain, after Robbins, had a binary line, divided between universities and polytechnics, and California had a trinary one. Yet an ethical problem remained for California. The Master Plan solution could not be democratically legitimate if verifiable merit alone was the criterion for entrance. One typically American solution was to introduce a second-chance system for students from other parts of the state higher education sector, allowing student transfer. The university also relinquished a feature of elite selection: it stopped drawing undergraduates exclusively from the leading secondary schools in the state in order to protect its research and graduate missions by ensuring that the most able students were recruited.

Confidence in the Master Plan has been shaken since the 1990s. The opportunity structure and trade-offs between quality and access are still intact, but Hispanic (the state's largest minority group) and African-American students are not entering the university at satisfactory rates, although Asian-Californian students are hugely successful. The abolition of affirmative action by voters is not to blame. It seems instead that the modest entry barriers (compared with Europe) are difficult for low-achieving students to overcome. One consequence is a bitter dispute spreading outside California over the worth and objectivity of standardised tests in determining merit. In Britain, historic gate-keeping examinations have also been under criticism and have been regularly modified to broaden the qualifications required for university entrance.

But another discontent in California is the famed trinary system itself. The middle sector has long suffered from status deprivation and has been eager for the right to establish or expand a research mission. The strength of the American system of democratic opportunity has depended on an understanding of clear mission responsibilities, with ample student mobility. The erosion of the trinary line will, it is feared, return California to the situation existing before 1960 when colleges and universities of every stripe overwhelmed the state legislature with special requests.

As we begin the 21st century, British and American higher education face new difficulties regarding the trade-offs between access and quality. Big Science long ago made clear how much money was required to meet the demands of fundamental inquiry. Paradoxically, the dissolution of the binary line in Britain has increased the problem. Quality maintenance has depended on government funding to a select number of universities, but the rapid increase in university-level institutions caused by the lifting of restrictions has allowed expansion to take place at the expense of the existing quality model. Funding cuts were inevitable. Is it also so surprising that we now hear of government desires to undo the work of the past 20 years by designating a congregation of favoured research centres? Taking away advantages, as anyone must imagine, is always more difficult than granting them. Institutional derogation will not be lightly accepted.

Each nation today must decide how many expensive universities it will support out of the public purse and how much consumers may expect to pay for the purchase of higher education. Although unpopular with students and their families, tuition fees, capped and uncapped, which have not been adopted in all European countries, are unavoidable. At the University of California, proposals to raise student expenses have been resisted as much as in Britain and defeated by an outcry from the state legislature. All state-supported universities justifiably worry about whether tuition payments will be a substitute for needed government support.

Restless democracies will not accept many of the gold-standard innovations of the past, nor are institutional jealousies of great use in determining how to create and support national structures of higher education that permit trade-offs between quality and access. Little good is achieved by thinking of institutions as winners or losers in a race for favour. Only a common understanding of how each type of institution supports another in the task of building an educated citizenry can provide the basis for creative responses. Above all, universities need the flexibility to avoid a single universal solution to every difficulty, especially since no one solution will endure. History provides examples of partial but not definitive answers.

Sheldon Rothblatt is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. He is giving this year's Bishop Waynflete Lectures at Magdalen College, Oxford, on "The elite university and democracy". The first is on Monday.

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