US schools discover you can bark...and bite

September 6, 2002

On the eve of the UUK conference, The THES looks at lobbyists here and abroad

When the US Congress raised the maximum federal grant for university students this summer, it was a triumph. This was not necessarily for the students - considering that the increase was a mere 2.5 per cent when tuition fees are soaring - but for the university lobbyists, who had just pulled victory from the jaws of defeat.

President George W. Bush had not wanted grants to rise at all, citing the high cost of the war on terrorism and other competing demands. But persistent pressure from higher education organisations not only won the modest increase, it also secured more federal money for student loans and medical research.

Some 150 groups lobby on behalf of universities and colleges in the US, and "the number only goes up", said Terry Hartle, who as vice-president of the American Council on Education is the industry's pre-eminent ambassador in Washington.

The council represents 2,000 heads of 1,800 public and private colleges and universities and a plethora of other higher education organisations. It lobbies not only for money but also to influence legislation governing everything from fire protection in dormitories to the use of animals in scientific research.

"The strongest weapon in our arsenal is speaking with a strong unambiguous voice," Dr Hartle said. "When we can speak with a single voice, we have a much better chance of prevailing."

That will be especially important next year, when the Higher Education Act comes up for congressional renewal. The act governs all federal higher education policy, including spending. Thoroughly overhauled in 1992, it was last ratified in 1998 with few changes. But shrinking federal funds and exploding new technologies have vastly changed the landscape since then.

"Reauthorisation is going to give us all grey hairs," said one lobbyist. Dr Hartle put it more subtly. "It's going to be a little more difficult than it was the last time around," he said. "Then there was a consensus that the underlying structure was working pretty well and we didn't need to redesign it in any significant way. But the world has changed. Distance education is more commonplace."

Dr Hartle is already convening meetings with his counterparts "to identify common positions". "My own guess is that on 98 per cent of the issues we will share a unified position," he said.

But universities and colleges are starting to push for their own individual pieces of the federal budget pie. They are willing to spend handsomely on lobbying to get so-called earmarks, or directed grants, to pay for new buildings, labs or programmes.

"Colleges and universities are much more sophisticated about Washington advocacy than they were 15 years ago," Dr Hartle said. "This is not surprising given the amount of money Washington makes available for student aid and research and development."

As for legislators, he said, "they have always been very sensitive to getting money for their districts for a bridge or a road. What has changed is that more and more policy-makers see universities as an important engine of economic development, and they want to use federal funds to facilitate that.

"So we've seen a fairly steady increase in the number of earmarks going to colleges and universities. And as more and more colleges see more and more earmarks being made, they are increasingly willing to pursue them themselves."

That may be an understatement. Two dozen universities now have Washington offices with full-time lobbyists, while others hire lobbyists who specialise in higher education. And they are powerful: when the programme that provides student tuition grants overspent its allocation, the president called on Congress to rescind 1,626 earmarks - many of them bound for colleges and universities to cover the shortfall. Lawmakers, pressured by higher education lobbyists, refused.

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