Once-wealthy Golden State system loses its lustre

California's staggering debt threatens the future of its mighty public universities. Jon Marcus reports

November 5, 2009

Carved from the Pacific coast's rust-coloured Palomar Mountain range, the University of California, San Diego seems as close to paradise as any public higher education institution in the US is likely to get.

A broad ethnic mix of students strolls beneath blue skies as hundreds more gather on the manicured athletics field for the Chancellor's Challenge, a 5km road race.

The race has been organised to raise scholarship money to help the poorest students meet the rapidly escalating costs of attending San Diego.

Tuition fees rose by 10 per cent this autumn and are likely to increase by another third under plans to be considered later this month.

In total, the race will generate about $200,000 (£122,000), a tiny sum compared with the $3 billion cut suffered by California's public universities since the recession hit, plus the 40 per cent decline in inflation-adjusted education spending seen since the early 1990s.

Public universities in America, which educate three quarters of the nation's students, have been disproportionately affected by the economic downturn.

To cope, they have either taken on more students than they can afford to educate, or are turning away applicants by the tens of thousands.

California, as is so often the case, is the most dramatic example of the problems. Its public university system is the largest in the country and is divided into three parts: 110 community colleges; 23 state universities; and the University of California's ten campuses.

Traditionally, it has also been among the best, including as it does University of California, Los Angeles and San Diego, both ranked among the US' top 20 research universities, plus UC Berkeley, widely considered to be the best public university in America. Faculty at all the UC schools have won 55 Nobel prizes between them.

But huge and continuing population growth (about 50 per cent since 1980), corporate tax cuts, a stuttering state government and a huge increase in prison spending have left California with a staggering $40 billion shortfall in public revenue.

Grapes of wrath

The results are plain to see: state buildings are up for sale; healthcare for the poor has been cut; and parks and beaches have been closed or left unsupervised. For a while, this once-wealthy state was even forced to issue IOUs to creditors.

Most of the University of California's 180,000 faculty and staff are being forced to take unpaid furloughs. Enrolment is being reduced by a collective 300,000, and UCLA has cut the number of its courses by 165 this autumn, or 10 per cent. Academic recruitment at Berkeley has been scaled back from 100 scholars a year to about ten.

More than 300 UC staff warned Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Governor of California - himself the product of a California community college - that the cuts imperil not only the prestige of the universities, but the economy of the state.

This litany of woe is being repeated throughout America. Average tuition fees at four-year public universities have risen by 6.5 per cent to $7,020, the College Board announced last month - 50 per cent faster than at private universities - despite a 2 per cent drop in consumer prices.

Charles Reed, chancellor of the California State University system, pointed to "an emerging catastrophe". "Higher education is in a competition it has never been in before, and it's in that competition with healthcare and prisons," he said.

In the 1980s, 17 per cent of California's budget was spent on higher education and 3 per cent on prisons. Today, the figures are 9 per cent and 10 per cent respectively.

Utsav Gupta, student body president at San Diego, said: "We're losing sight of what a public higher education means - something that's affordable and accessible to all."

Blame game

Yet public universities share some of the blame for their predicament. They have steadily spent money on expensive programmes, buildings and even entire campuses, often prodded by the politicians who control their budgets.

And rather than unifying in defence of their sector, infighting has already broken out.

The faculty unions, for example, are attacking university executives for paying themselves lavish salaries.

Mark Yudof, president of the UC system, makes $540,000 a year even after taking a pay cut, and the state provides him with a plush home at a cost of $10,000 a month.

Even as it furloughs professors, Berkeley is spending $430 million on a new office, training and locker-room complex for athletics, as well as renovating its football stadium.

Faculty, students and some political voices are calling for a 9.9 per cent tax on oil in California, the only oil-producing US state that does not already charge one.

The estimated $1 billion raised would go to higher education, but the prospects for the move seem dim, even as another $7 billion state shortfall is projected for next year.

Back at the road race, Marye Anne Fox, chancellor of San Diego, said that America's public universities "will slip into mediocrity" as a result of the privations.

"Everywhere around the world, when people want the very best in higher education, they come to the US," she said.

"Anything that threatens that is to the detriment of everybody, not just in the US but around the world."

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