The perils of California Dreamin’ in higher education

Writing in the National Post, Ian Clark argues that emulating California’s higher education system will increase the productivity and efficiency of Ontario’s universities. No doubt, this is an idea that will appeal to some, but the rest of us should be cautious in accepting his conclusions.

Clark, along with David Trick and Richard Van Loon, have built a bit of a cottage industry around diagnosing the ailments of Ontario’s universities and suggesting ways to cure them. Their work, expressed in the books Academic Transformation and Academic Reform, boils down to this: Ontario’s universities are great, but too expensive. Since the government (many members of which, it should be noted, benefited from universities generously funded from the public purse) is unwilling or unable to pay for them  then we’ve got to find a way to make them cheaper.

This goal can certainly be debated, and the persistent resource shortages plaguing our institutions are an undeniable fact. But the rosy view of California – and the suggestion that Ontario has much to learn from our southern peer – is harder to defend.

His primary claim is that California university students gets more teaching from full-time faculty than students in Ontario. This is due largely to the “tiering” of California universities into the elite University of California system, and the more teaching-focused California State system. The majority of students are enrolled in Cal State universities, which explains California’s higher level of teaching by full-time faculty. Ontario has no such tiering in its universities, giving Clark’s analysis a slight “apples-to-oranges” flavour.

Of course, Clark’s whole point is that Ontario should have at least two tiers of universities. Right now, Ontario’s universities are structured like the elite University of California institutions (and let me cut off the inevitable objection here by saying that a similar structure does not imply similar prestige). Creating two tiers in Ontario would require government to assign institutions directly (an unprecedented intrusion into the autonomy of our universities), or some sort of indirect policy intervention.

Clark goes the second route. He suggests that Ontario should make 25 per cent of the government’s operating grant contingent on research productivity. This, he claims, will funnel research dollars to the most research-productive institutions, forcing the other institutions to focus more on teaching. The result, presumably, would be the emergence of California-style tiers. He does not say how the less-productive institutions are supposed to fill the new holes in their budgets. Presumably, they would draw down their research activities, but this does not necessarily mean they would simultaneously increase their focus on teaching. In fact, they may decrease teaching in order to replace lost research funding.

Clark makes a basic error, one common to those with a technocratic perspective. That is, he fails to appreciate the human aspects of policy-making. Clark expects his rational policy to have a rational result – a more efficient and effective model of university research and teaching. But he does not understand – or chooses to ignore – that universities operate in a competitive environment where reputation is the primary asset. Students are aspirational; they want to attend the university they see as the “best”. Pace the logic of university rankings, the “best” is usually the university with the most active and prestigious research program. Everybody understands that Berkeley is more prestigious than Cal State campus at San Bernadino. University administrators understand this too, and it is why universities continue to put a premium on research.

Years of scarce resources have made university administrators experts at chasing money. Faced with the prospect of losing research funding to other institutions, they will likely put even more of a premium on research. Under Clark’s plan, every university will try to be in the top tier of research universities. This means less emphasis on teaching in tenure and promotion process for faculty, fewer resources for teaching, and basically the exact opposite outcome that Clark desires. Instead of getting more teaching for our funding dollars, we would get less. The only way to forestall this outcome is for the government to intervene directly in universities, which is legally (universities are autonomous through legislation) and pragmatically (governments are terrible at running universities) problematic.

It is also important to ask whether California’s supposed teaching advantage leads to better outcomes for students. A key indicator of student success is the graduation rate, or the percentage of students who achieve a degree six years after enrolling. In 2007 (the last year of comparable data), Ontario’s universities had a graduation rate of 78 per cent, while California’s “elite” University of California campuses  and 22 Cal State institutions had a graduation rate of 79.4 per cent and 45.7 per cent respectively. So, our entire system has rough parity with California’s elite institutions, and a graduation rate 71 per cent higher than its other institutions (which, let’s remember, are supposedly the schools that emphasize teaching). By 2010, our graduation rate had gone up to 81 per cent. Sector-wide, Ontario graduates eight out of every ten students. In California, they manage something like six across their institutions. And we did all this with a lower level of per student government investment and lower tuition revenue. So, which system is more productive, again?

There are other minor problems with Clark’s analysis – he uses the increasingly inaccurate shorthand of “40-40-20″ to describe the balance of teaching, research, and service for faculty at Ontario’s universities, and misses the fact that Ontario has in fact won a Nobel prize since 1995 (Prof. Barry Smit, at the University of Guelph, shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for his work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). But the biggest oversight is that Clark misses the actual lesson California can teach Ontario: no matter how well your higher education system is designed, it will fail if there isn’t the political will to support it. For much of the past few years, California’s universities have been in freefall, beset by funding cuts, tuition increases, and student unrest. Few can forget the image of campus police at UC Davis pepper-spraying defenseless students. Why? Because California is broke, and appears unable to fund its universities for success. The crisis has eased somewhat, thanks to a tax hike passed just a few weeks ago. However, rather than restoring funding, Governor Jerry Brown used the new revenue to roll back tuition. It remains to be seen how the quality and productivity of California’s universities will be affected by the long-term fallout of the funding crisis. California’s system may make a lot of sense, but without adequate financial support from government, it is at risk of starving to death.

Rather than gazing wistfully at California – which, when you get up close, has plenty of warts – Ontario’s funding problems need to be solved with homegrown solutions. While some savings can no doubt be found within universities, it is difficult to escape the fact that a high-quality and affordable university system needs public investment. Increasing government investment is not the easy thing to do in the current climate, but it’s the necessary thing – for California and Ontario.

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