China and other Asian countries are responding to the global recession with massive public investment in higher education while Western nations cut university budgets, an international conference has heard.
Among the speeches at the World Universities Forum in Davos, Switzerland were two that highlighted contrasting government and public attitudes to higher education in China and the US.
Linda Katehi, chancellor of the University of California, Davis, looked at the future of the state's publicly funded university system in the wake of a 20 per cent budget cut over the past year.
She warned that without increased federal and state investment, America's public research universities faced the "shrunken, caste-bound future of the privatised university".
David Strangway, who co-chaired the Task Force on Innovation and Environment for the China Council on International Co-operation on Environment and Development, presented a contrasting vision of higher education investment in China, particularly in the low-carbon economy.
"They are investing heavily in research and development and building a lot of university-based capacity," he told Times Higher Education.
Bill Cope, director of Common Ground Publishing, which organises the World Universities Forum alongside the University of Illinois' College of Education, said a key theme to emerge from the conference was China's "huge, structured public investment in higher education at a time when there is disinvestment in northern Europe and North America".
Higher education investment is a key part of China's economic-stimulus package, he noted.
His analysis was similar to that of Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne, who was a keynote speaker at the forum.
Writing in this week's THE, he describes the higher education policies of Asian and Western governments as "polar opposites".
"In Far Eastern nations, public faith in educational investment is increasing while the West withdraws," he writes.
Professor Katehi made the case for challenging that approach in a keynote speech titled "Safeguarding the future: a call for renewed commitment to public higher education in challenging economic times".
She contrasted the University of California's current plight - budget cuts of $637 million (£390 million) have prompted a 32 per cent rise in tuition fees - with its founding ideals as a "public good to be cherished and financially supported by its citizenry".
Systematic disinvestment began with the limits on state taxation, and consequently state investment, that were approved by California voters in 1978, she said.
"It is time for the US to reconsider leaving planning for higher education and funding of its national universities to the trepidation of short-sighted state politics," Professor Katehi said. "If ever the US needed to formulate a long-range master plan for the future of its higher education system, now is the time.
"If ever the US needed to make a long-range fiscal investment safeguarding those plans against short-term contingencies, and to declare that education is its highest priority both for the good of its citizens and for the continued welfare and security of the nation, now is the time."
Professor Katehi highlighted the key role of public research universities in technological literacy, training scientists, doctors and teachers, finding viable alternatives to carbon-based energy supplies and responding to global problems of poverty and disease.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, California's Governor, has proposed an amendment to the state constitution to shift money from prisons to higher education, she noted.
Without such investment, her university would have to rely on "privatisation" and still higher fees.
China boosts investment
In contrast to the cuts in public funding presented by Professor Katehi, the forum heard of the huge investment under way in China.
Professor Strangway, who is emeritus president at Quest University, Canada and former president of the University of Toronto, discussed China's drive to become a world leader in environmental solutions and technologies such as wind and solar energy.
Universities have a key role to play in this process, he said.
In another of the forum's keynote speeches, Jandhyala B.G. Tilak, professor of educational finance at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi, looked at changing definitions of the idea of the university.
"Higher education is a public good, producing a huge set of wider social benefits that span social, economic, political, cultural and technological areas," he said.
Professor Tilak argued that "we need to expand, strengthen, re-energise and revitalise the dying public university system".
"It should be liberally funded by the state, which would guarantee enhanced levels of equitable access and improved levels of quality and excellence, producing better human beings," he said.
The World Universities Forum is now in its third year.
Dr Cope said it was set up as a "critical foil" to the World Economic Forum, which also holds its annual meeting in Davos.
The economic forum is about "getting business people and politicians talking about the future of the world. We said we would have the same conversation about the place of universities in shaping the future," he added.