Finding ways to increase African American enrolments and coping with budget cuts that have left middle-class families “slammed” by tuition fee rises are two of the key challenges facing the University of California, Los Angeles, according to its chancellor.
Gene Block, whose research background is primarily in neuroscience, also told Times Higher Education that attempts by politicians around the world to prioritise the study of science and technology subjects above the humanities should be resisted.
UCLA has new buildings, “faculty are winning awards” and it remains “the most applied-to school in the United States”, Dr Block said after giving a keynote speech at the inaugural THE Asia Universities Summit at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in June.
But at the same time, UCLA is “facing some significant challenges”, he added. “One challenge is financial. Our budget from the state went from roughly $640 million (£486 million) in 2007 when I arrived to about $400 million two years later.”
In that period following the financial crisis – which saw public university budgets across the US hit hard as states slashed spending – the University of California, which sets tuition costs for all the nine campuses in the system, “almost doubled tuition in a very short period of time, with tremendous unrest”, Dr Block said.
The annual cost of tuition rose above $10,000 for the first time in 2009 after a controversial 32 per cent rise, with tuition and fees standing at $12,240 in 2015-16 for California resident students.
Asked if that had left him worried about access to public higher education for students, he replied: “Absolutely. We poured money back into students from poorer families – they were OK. It was the middle-class students who got slammed.
“They earn enough to not qualify for substantial financial aid, but Los Angeles is a very expensive place to live…Many of these California families just found it almost impossible. So we have worked hard to find other ways to provide other kinds of support, but that’s been a challenge.
“We managed by increasing the number of international and out-of-state students, who pay much higher tuition. We’re able to partially make up for the loss in state support.”
But now some state legislators want to bring down the proportion of out-of-state students in the University of California. Dr Block put this proportion at about 25 per cent at UCLA.
He acknowledged that on this issue, the politics are “very sensitive” in terms of access for Californian students. He added: “We understand their [families’] frustration. There aren’t enough UC slots at the campuses where students really want to go.”
Although there is now a “slowly increasing budget” from the state government, there will be “a very long period of time before we get back to the level of support we had eight years ago”, said Dr Block. He added that UCLA has raised $2.5 billion towards reaching a $4.2 billion fundraising target.
Dr Block highlighted diversity as the second big challenge facing UCLA, noting that the Latino student population may well prove to be 22 per cent of the incoming class, which he said was “spectacular in some ways”.
But he added: “African American students are still very low numbers. We’ve improved, but still very low.
“We’re prevented from using race as a factor because of Proposition 209, which is a special proposition passed by the California legislature, which doesn’t allow you to use race, gender, ethnicity as a factor in admissions. We have to therefore use every mechanism we can to have a diverse class.”
He continued: “Some of the tensions on campus reflect the lack of representation of African American students, especially African American males. Many of the students claim, ‘I go to a class, and I’m the only African American.’ That’s not a great environment. You really want to have people that look like you around you.”
In his speech, Dr Block said that worldwide – including in Japan and the US – some politicians have shown increasing tendencies to argue that state funding should not be provided for students in subjects perceived to bring lower returns in the labour market, such as the humanities and social sciences, with the priority instead being science and technology subjects. He called this “a disturbing and actually pretty nasty debate”.
“I think that if you look at the way progress is made intellectually, it’s usually multidimensional…great universities seem to have it all,” he told THE.
“You have to have all these areas of scholarship on the same campus, literally. If you don’t have people in close proximity, you don’t get all that catalysis that makes for really dynamic thinking.”