The chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley said he would “love” to see Hillary Clinton introduce free university tuition for poor students but the pledge is unlikely to be implemented in the event that she becomes US president.
Speaking as part of a wide-ranging panel discussion on the topic “Who pays for world-class universities?” at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit on 27 September, Nicholas Dirks said that student debt has become “one of the rallying cries” from those who “critique” higher education.
“I would love to see the Clinton administration come and make college free for students coming from families earning less than $125,000. But I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Professor Dirks said.
He said this was because “if such a thing came to be, there would be a real concerted effort to control parts of some of the great research institutions that are public in ways that might compromise their capacity to compete at the highest level”.
Speaking to THE after the session, he said that a federal programme to support students in paying fees "is possible" but it would be a "complicated political process" given that state governments are in charge of universities.
He added that it is "inevitable" that state or federal governments would "worry about the cost" of increasing resources for low-income students, which might result in them "controlling" funds for research.
Later, he continued that he is worried that there are "some real political obstacles" to such a policy, largely the "amount of money it would require at a federal level".
He added that there would also be a need to "develop relationships between the role of the federal government and the role of the state government in supporting education" given that education has traditionally been supported by states and research has been supported by the federal government.
Thirdly, he said that there needs to be "some reform" of student loans, which are "now very unforgiving and can create huge obstacles for students incurring large levels of debt".
"I support the aims and goals of federal tuition programmes but I think there are a lot of details that would need to be worked through," he said.
During the panel discussion, Professor Dirks added that the amount the US spends on prisons is disproportionate compared with the amount it spends on universities, and public institutions must acknowledge that funding will be “increasingly differentiated” and “ad hoc”.
Meanwhile, Bernd Huber, president of LMU Munich, who was also speaking on the panel, said the introduction of tuition fees in Germany in 2006 was a “political disaster” and he was “quite confident” that the government would not reintroduce fees within the next five to 10 years. Tuition fees in Germany were scrapped in 2014.
“The question is: what will happen in the future? Can we maintain the exclusive financing by the taxpayer of higher education?” he said.
The debate, which also heard from Lin Jianhua, president of Peking University, presented the differing mindsets of the public when it comes to the value of higher education in the US, Germany and China.
Professor Jianhua said that the Chinese public “wants to invest in education for future generations” and there is an “agreement” that higher education is “very important for the local economy”.
But Professor Dirks said the US can learn from Germany and China and as higher education becomes more selective, “public support goes down”.
Debbie Sills, national managing director of public sector practice at Deloitte Consulting, said US states have “primarily” cut funding to public higher education because they have “funding pressures”, not because their “philosophical belief” in the value of universities has changed.
She said that healthcare is taking an “enormous part of their budgets these days”, while there has been increased investment in school education recently, an area she said has previously been “neglected”.
“There is an enormous amount of pressure on state governments, and their ability to drive the funding they’d like to drive in higher education is very constrained," she said. "It is much more about funding than a philosophical belief that universities should be funded in different ways.”