Sector seeks cross-party support in US

November 19, 2004

American universities face, at best, four years of stalemate with the re-election of George W. Bush and a Republican majority in the US House of Representatives, according to university lobbyists and other higher education officials.

While there was general bipartisan support during the presidential campaign for making university more affordable - particularly to middle-class families whose votes were courted by both sides - neither party placed the issue at the top of its list of concerns.

Now that the election dust has settled in Washington, the Republicans are certain to continue pressing for more financial accountability from universities whose tuition fees have increased at double the inflation rate.

"What higher education faces is a lot of irritations and irritants," said Robert Zemsky, director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Professor Zemsky drew attention to the scheduled reauthorisation of the Higher Education Act, the vast section of federal law that pertains to almost everything that has to do with universities - particularly programmes governing financial aid for students. It was last reauthorised in 1998, and is overdue for reconsideration by the Congress.

He commented: "One of the ironies is that the Republicans, particularly in the House of Representatives, are going to focus on price and try to use the federal reauthorisation to get colleges to control price, which is a little unusual for Republicans."

Republicans have proposed tying a university's annual tuition increase to its students' eligibility for federal financial aid. They assume that students would stay away from universities excluded from the federal financial aid programme, forcing universities to better control their costs.

As for channelling more money to the universities themselves, Professor Zemsky said: "I would doubt that higher education is going to be favourably treated financially under almost any scenario. There is this huge deficit, and, for the Republicans, higher education is pretty far down in their priorities. They're going to use their chips elsewhere."

Weakened by the results of the election, Democrats are unlikely to make this one of the issues they will use their thin Senate majority to block, he added.

Kevin Casey, chief lobbyist for Harvard University, thinks deadlock is more likely. "The worry is that when you come out of an election, because of some of the rancour or the climate, the members aren't able to pass bills, including some of the appropriations bills. And our issues get lost in the shuffle."

Universities, he said, should adopt a strategy of trying to convince both parties to think of higher education as an ideal bipartisan cause.

"Strategically you would hope you could become an example of bipartisanship. Our hope is that they might be looking for a poster child for that."

Mr Casey said: "If you look at the election in terms of the branches maintaining a similar configuration to what we've been dealing with, and recognise that the issues we focus on - research funding, support for students -tend to be those that have been traditionally bipartisan, it is our hope that our issues will continue to be supported by both parties."

Other observers agree that university research funding is one potential area of agreement - even with regard to stem-cell research, which, though it was a pivotal topic of disagreement between the presidential candidates, is strongly supported by powerful interests in both parties.

Professor Zemsky said that although President Bush spoke out strongly against additional stem-cell research, Republicans would find ways to increase stem-cell lines and use less incendiary language to back biological research with a lower profile.

"The fact that a lot of supporters of President Bush touted their support for stem-cell research... our hope is that that kind of rhetoric will at least keep the dynamic from slipping backwards and enacting more restrictions," Mr Casey said.

The election also had a broader impact: sharply defining the division between mainstream voters and the cultural elite. But university experts say that elite was more clearly identified as Hollywood and the media, rather than higher education.

"It's been almost a decade now since anybody really worried that the colleges and universities were essentially ruining kids with bad values," Professor Zemsky said. "The cultural elite business is now much more about entertainment and about what people get paid, much more about where they send their younger kids to school. It's sad, but universities no longer really play in that arena."

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