Three Perspectives on Higher Education

Most people following the news these days will see that there’s a hefty debate on the sustainability and future prospects of higher education, especially in the UK, where the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has enacted major reforms that will impose a market logic on higher education, almost certainly raise costs, and saddle students with American levels of debt. In the United States, the problems are slightly different – low standards, probably too many universities, buoyed by government back student loans, and universities with out-of-whack priorities (too many multi-million dollar sports complexes and not enough German literature programs, goes the usual criticism). Some, like Peter Thiel and Walter Russell Mead, have argued that higher education be dramatically scaled back in the US – Thiel arguing that entrepreneurship provides a better training for life than most tertiary programs (which I agree with, at least for the 30%+ of students doing undergrad business degrees), Mead in favor of retaining a liberal arts curriculum for the top 5-10% of schools, but arguing for a more vocational, skills-based approach outside of the élite range of schools.

Two perspectives might be of interest here. On the one hand, a friend recently forwarded me an article by Claire Bishop, a British art historian, on the reforms apace in the UK. It’s one of the best accounts of what’s going on in the UK, along with some of the potential pitfalls of following the American approach. Elsewhere, I suggest checking out what Don Randel, a respected musicologist and the President of the Andrew Mellon Foundation, has had to say about reform. I went to hear him speak at the American Academy in Berlin this past week, and he made an interesting observation, comparing (in America) health care with education. Both are, in some sense, basic goods that we need to live and thrive as individuals in an ordered society. You can’t go without education, and you certainly can’t go without healthcare, in the same way you can travel, telecommunications, or media (to take three big market verticals). As we know from the summer 2009 healthcare debates, most countries, in spite of the challenges of death panels, operate a single-payer government-run system. Higher education is more complex: Germany and the UK have almost entirely public systems, while in the CIS there are many public universities — often dreary, drafty, underfunded places with occasionally wonderful academics — as well as smaller, private institutions, either as American Universities or run by religious foundations, like the Aga Khan Foundation for Central Asia. But Americans have a strange attitude towards these systems. Perhaps because of our frontier mentality, or perhaps due to thirty years of neoliberal / Reaganite ideology, we have grown uncomfortable towards the idea of large public bureaucracies – especially when it might have something to do with our bodies or indoctrination. Hence, Randel argued, as a result, America tends to produce binary systems both in education and healthcare. Government picks up the tab for the lower end of the spectrum, with public funding for public schools, community colleges, and state universities. But at every level, there’s a private alternative that, in both health and education, is the best in the world: Groton, Harvard, Yale Law School, etc. If you’re in the élite already, it’s great, but most people end up paying too much for a mediocre college education. The middling institutions still remain competitive, however, because people view a BA as essential, and in spite of complaining about costs, the market (students and parents) do indeed want to go to schools with 1950s style diner restaurants, even if they are almost certain to fail finding a job afterwards. The same applies in health: Medicare and Medicaid as a baseline, dramatically overpriced private insurance for most (which you still feel compelled to buy), and great hospitals for those who can pay.

I have some modest observations to add to the debate. While writing an essay for a contest this winter, I came up with my own thoughts, and a proposal, for higher education in Western countries. Check it out (below) nd let me know what you think:

Post-Crisis Higher Education: Between the Browne Review and Public Goods

This autumn saw some of the largest student protests in British history. University students, disillusioned by the Browne Review and angered with Liberal Democrat MPs’ support of the proposals, took to the streets to protest the increase in tuition caps from £3,290 to £9,000. Images of students occupying Oxford’s Radcliffe Camera, vandalizing shops, or attempting to assault Prince Charles spoke to a crisis.

At stake behind this controversy stands the issue of public goods and values. It raises the question of the purpose of our universities and how to fund them. I want to answer this question. I oppose the neo-liberal faith in markets as problematic for higher education because it creates an anti-meritocracy, hinders entrepreneurialism and maturity in students, and erodes national solidarity. I want to propose a policy of federal loans to state-level higher education conditional upon mandatory strategic cuts and regulation of student loans. States would have to repay this bailout loan in the future. (This proposal speaks primarily to America, but German Länder or the UK government might adapt it.) In order to develop this proposal, I shall first address the problems with Lord Browne’s vision and then outline an alternative vision for higher education reform.

I.

Most of the mainstream media’s coverage of the Review, as well as the rhetoric of the British student movement, focused on the tripling of tuition caps and the increase in personal debt and economic barriers to education this was likely to cause. But this emphasis on individual financial liabilities misses the point.

An essay by Stefan Collini poses the most devastating critique of the policy-making tradition that the Browne Review represents.Collini points out that the most truly radical provision of the Browne Review was the replacement of the annual block grant the UK government makes to universities (about £3.9 billion) to underwrite their teaching costs with a financing scheme funded through students’ choices about where and what to study.2 The system disbursed monies to universities on a per-student basis and gave universities flexibility on subjects offered as well as the cost of various courses. Universities used low-cost courses (say, English or History) to subsidize popular high-cost programs (e.g. Medicine), or subjects that contributed to culture – say, drama or foreign languages. The Browne Review proposes to eliminate this block-grant system; courses must survive by attracting students, who will decide which courses will help them to pay back their student debt.

Different policy traditions underwrote these two policy approaches. The British system after the Robbins Report, for example, was buoyed by a commitment to the public good.3 Societies had the obligation, per the Robbins Report, to “promotion of the general powers of the mind so as to produce not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women,” and to “transmit a common culture and common standards of citizenship.”4 Postwar reformers saw society as a trans-generational compact with a common moral imagination. Support for public institutions like the universities, libraries, theaters, and museums reflected a belief that in spite of differences of race, class, and intellectual endowment, nations held common values. It worked: postwar Britain’s state schools funneled talented young men to formerly elitist Oxbridge; Berkeley in the 1960s and 1970s provided perhaps the best college education in America for free, fueling California’s growth.5

In opposition to this tradition stood the values represented by Thatcher’s maxim “there is no such thing as society.”6 The Browne Review perpetuates this counter-tradition, substituting the atomized consumer for the the moral citizen. Education is not a civil right for a common polity but a product for the student-consumer; universities are not a reflection of common civic values but bazaars for 18-year-old shoppers. But even as Browne embraces the market’s wisdom, he allows that a “public interest” could exist for medicine and the hard sciences as drivers of “innovation and economic transformation.” Such a conception of public interest is common for a report that does not use the word “morality” or “ethics,” and which conceives of “value” or “values” in solely economic terms.

This approach has paved a road to plutocracy. At many universities, tales of six-figure student loan debt are common.7 As Robert Reich emphasizes, the last decade saw a dismantling and marketization of American higher education that shut poorer students out of the system.8 High debt limits students’ career options, handicaps potential young entrepreneurs, and increases stress.9 Some young peoples’ 20s become a time of living at home, struggling to form career or personal connections, and delaying adult life.10 This system incentivizes students to enter the remunerative financial services industry, whose value added has been questioned.11 And further shifting the burden to students will discourage poorer students and students from non-traditional backgrounds from incurring debt for education. This year, Oxford colleges admitted only one black British student for undergraduate study and admitted more students from the affluent London borough of Richmond than Rochdale, Barnsley, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough and Stoke combined.12

These signs raise unsettling questions. At a period when China has posted impressive gains in its performance on PISA scores, and India approaches the 21st century with impressive technical education and a young population, will we respond by restricting our future talent base to the student bodies of the top Mayfair, Manhattan, and Palo Alto preschools?13 And recent research shows how a regime of inequality and stress leads to rises in negative social indicators: child welfare, crime, and obesity, to name a few.14  But more fundamentally, I fear that Browne’s society-as-market vision will undermine much of what made the Western market democracies worth preserving. True, part of what attracts immigrants to the West is the vibrancy of 21st century capitalism and the possibility to achieve a higher material standard of living than was possible at home. Yet in my experience, more of them seek fairness, if not for themselves then for their children. They want to give their children the conditions under which they can obtain the skills and resources they need to realize themselves – not because of their credit rating, but because of their talents and membership in a common civic project. They want lives where they can invest in themselves to create further wealth and undergird strong families – a vision not far from what Thatcher herself articulated in her “Sermon on the Mound.”15 How we can recover from these excesses and 30 years of poor decisions in higher education is the topic of the second part of this essay.

II.

But I want to make constructive suggestions for a way forward. I wish to propose massive conditional federal loans state-level higher education. Many U.S. states, most notably California, have faced unprecedented budget crisis since 2008 and have been forced to fire school teachers, cut medical insurance for the poor, and end AIDS treatment programs. Higher education has also been an area for cuts.16 Federal / central governments should step in with funding to make up the difference in post-crisis cuts in higher education, which states could choose to accept or reject. Those states that do accept funding would have to accept new regulations to avoid repeating the situation of today. States would have to repay the loans once their finances stabilize. Governors and legislatures would be free to reject the funding, but at their own peril;17 75% of Americans favor funding education over short-term deficit reduction, knowing how crucial education is for growth.18Specifically, we should make two broad reforms mandatory for any bailout. First, we must reverse universities’ mission creep over the past thirty years.19 Since the early 1980s, armies of cheap, replaceable academic labor (graduate students and adjuncts) have replaced tenured professors, and in the UK a system of “performance indicators” now dominates evaluations of research quality.20 The size of college administrative staffs, meanwhile, grew between 35 and 60 percent from the 1970s until today, and campuses built more rock climbing walls, athletic facilities, and tanning salons than classrooms.21

True, taxpayers cannot expect to bankroll professors who do not teach, and many are justly outraged at higher education’s cost. But parents want their childrens’ instructors to be more than part-time labor. They want mentors with research experience that informs their teaching. And if our political leadership believes that “strong and stable families of all kinds are the bedrock of societies,”22 why do we employ a system that forces young professionals to commute hours between institutions away from their loved ones?23 And I wonder: in our rush to cut costs, might we not have missed the real management lessons? When I look at some of our most creative companies – Google, Facebook, or Apple – I see not giant bureaucracies obsessing over individual employees’ profitability, but rather trust and a willingness to let them experiment and create.24 Do leading corporations run sports departments for a loss with no link to their primary product? What would the reaction be at Google if they found out that the number of full-time engineers had declined while the number of secretaries had tripled? And yet we let the equivalent transpire even at our best universities.25

The crisis gives us an opportunity to fix these mistakes. We should make acceptance of federal support conditional upon accepting best practices including: (a) accounting of non-academic programs and employees (sports, student centers, counseling, career services) with mandatory closures or fee regimes for unprofitable subunits; (b) reduction of adjunct faculty and efforts to promote more full-time, if still untenured faculty. Loan conditions could also include funding of writing programs, the sciences, and area studies, not tribalistic ethnic and gender studies disciplines of questionable academic merit. The new educational management will focus on providing an austere but high-quality education in the classroom rather than goodies or programs that promote ethnic, religious, or gender solidarity over assimilation and a common but cosmopolitan national life.26 

The second major area of reform that a conditional funding surge will tackle is student loan reform. I would offer the principle that well-intentioned, hard-working students should be able to find employment and pay back their undergraduate debt within five years of graduation.27 Bogging down young entrepreneurs and families with six-figure debt loans is foolish policy, particularly so for aging economies with only 1-2% annual growth.28 Predatory advertising also presents a challenge, as cases of students being duped into taking on hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt for useless degrees have become more common.29

What to do? I propose that students be required to finance their own undergraduate educations to a debt level equivalent to one year’s entry-level salary (say, $30,000 or £20,000) so that they entertain greater responsibility in pursuing their education. Loan reform is vexing: we have to encourage student responsibility while disincentivizing the institutional moral hazard of profits gained through issuing debt to “high-risk” students unlikely to pay back their loans. No system will be perfect. But universities will have to take on greater accountability. Too often, guaranteed federal loans have fueled mission creep fueled by fee increases. Perhaps institutions meeting certain benchmarks (graduation rates, employment statistics, student satisfaction) could qualify for low-interest block loans from the federal government, which they could then repackage as student loans to individuals. Graduates would be required to pay back their debt to the school, but they could also discharge this debt in bankruptcy or after, say, 25 years of payment or reaching retirement age. The government could forgive institutions’ debt if students took on government or military jobs, but institutions would otherwise be responsible for paying back the block loans.

This approach might put more responsibility in the hands of institutions, encouraging them to produce graduates who can compete and pay back their loans. Such a system might discourage schools from issuing debt to “high-risk” students, but private loan companies and the for-profit institutions could gamble on such students, although their losses should not be subsidized by the taxpayer. And the cases of those not served by this proposed loan system will draw greater attention to how to provide skills to those who are not served, and may not need to be served, by traditional academic higher education.

These proposals can only be the beginning of a conversation about re-imagining higher education as a public good. But it is a conversation we have to have if we want to thrive in 21st century global competition, reinvigorate some our best institutions, and build strong, unified economies and countries.

1Stefan Collini, “Browne’s Gamble,” London Review of Books, November 4, 2010, 23-25, available online at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n21/stefan-collini/brownes-gamble

2Lord Browne of Madingley, Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education: An Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance(October 2010), available online at: http://hereview.independent.gov.uk/hereview/

3For the sake of clarity, I would like to underline that universities are in reality closer to what economists refer to as “club goods” than “public goods,” since they are excludable and non-rivalrous. Indeed, given the competitiveness of getting into any one particular university, it might be interesting to consider further where precisely selective public universities fall in the scheme of public, private, and club goods. Needless to say, universities are by definition elite institutions and cannot admit everyone. However, this discussion is beyond the bounds of this short essay. I use the term “public good” here to underline the focus on common goods in the one policy tradition.

4Higher Education: Report of the Committee Appointed by the Prime Minister Under the Chairmanship of Lord Robbins, 1961-1963 (London: H.M.S.O., 1963).

5Tony Judt, “Meritocrats,” The New York Review of Books, August 19, 2010, available online at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/aug/19/meritocrats/?pagination=false; Anthony Grafton, “Britain: The Disgrace of the Universities,” The New York Review of Books, April 8, 2010, available online at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/apr/08/britain-the-disgrace-of-the-universities/

6Margaret Thatcher, Interview with Women’s Own, October 31, 1987, 8-10.

7Ron Lieber, “Placing the Blame as Students Are Buried in Debt,” The New York Times, May 28, 2010, available online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/29/your-money/student-loans/29money.html

8Robert B. Reich, “The Attack on American Education,” www.robertreich.org, December 22, 2010.

9Tamar Lewin, “Record Level of Stress Found in College Freshmen,” The New York Times, January 26, 2011, available online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/27/education/27colleges.html

10 See, for example, Robin Marantz Henig, “What Is It About 20-Somethings?”, New York Times Magazine, August 18, 2010, available online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/magazine/22Adulthood-t.html?pagewanted=all

11John Cassidy, “What Good is Wall Street?” The New Yorker, November 29, 2010, available online at: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/11/29/101129fa_fact_cassidy?currentPage=all

12 D.D. Guttenplan, “Dearth of Blacks at Oxford and Cambridge,” New York Times, December 12, 2010, available online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/13/world/europe/13iht-educBriefs13.html

13Sam Dillon, “Top Test Scores From Shanghai Stun Educators,” The New York Times, December 7, 2010, available online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/07/education/07education.html; Thomas Friedman, “Serious in Singapore,” The New York Times, January 29, 2011, available online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/30/opinion/30friedman.html

14 Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2010); Avner Offer, Rachel Pechey, and Stanley Ulijasek, “Obesity Under Affluence Varies By Welfare Regimes: The Effect of Fast Food, Insecurity, and Inequality,” Working Paper (July 2010).

15Margaret Thatcher, Address to the General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland (Edinburgh, United Kingdom), May 21, 1988.

16Jordan Bach-Lombardo, “Brown’s Budget Stirs Debate,” The Daily Californian, January 18, 2011, available online at: http://www.dailycal.org/article/111522/brown_s_budget_stirs_debate

17This argument about political pressure is more difficult to re-imagine in the case of the UK, but one could well imagine Labour publicly and enthusiastically supporting such a program – leaving the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats on the side of defending the unpopular Browne Review. Good policy may also make for good politics.

18CNN/Opinion Research Poll, January 21-23, 2011, available online at: http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2011/images/01/25/rel2d.pdf

19Greg Beato, “Grade Inflation,” Reason (February 2011), available online at: http://reason.com/archives/2011/01/28/grade-inflation; Jack Shuster and Martin Finkelstein, The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2008); Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades, Academic Capitalism and the New Economy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

20Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (New York: Norton, 2010); Simon Head, “The Grim Threat to British Universities,” The New York Review of Books, January 13, 2011, available online at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jan/13/grim-threat-british-universities/?pagination=false

21Beato, “Grade Inflation”; Thomas Sowell, “The Scandal of College Tuition,” Commentary (August 1992).

22“Where We Stand – Family,” Conservative Party (UK) Website, available online at: http://www.conservatives.com/Policy/Where_we_stand/Family.aspx

23For more information on the lifestyle of adjunct professors, see: Alan Finder, “Decline of the Tenure Track Raises Concerns,” New York Times, November 20, 2007, available online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/20/education/20adjunct.html; W.T. Pfefferle, “A Former Adjunct Professor Comes (Mostly) Clean,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 6, 1999, available online at: http://chronicle.com/article/A-Former-Adjunct-Professor-/45609/. The American Association of University Professors produced a detailed report in 2006 on adjunct faculty in the United States, available online at: http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/research/conind2006.htm

24For profiles of these individual companies (and their labor practices), see, for Google, Ken Auletta, Googled: The End of the World as We Know It (New York: Penguin Press, 2009); for Starbucks, Howard Behar and Janet Goldstein, It’s Not About the Coffee: Lessons on Putting People First from a Life at Starbucks, (New York: Portfolio Trade, 2009); for Whole Foods, Nick Paumgarten, “Food Fighter,” The New Yorker, January 4, 2010.

25For more on these changes in higher education, see Frank Donoghue, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).

26For an example of the kind of ethnically-focused programs unworthy of public funding, see Marc Lacey, “Rift in Arizona as Latino Class Is Found Illegal,” The New York Times, January 7, 2011, available online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/08/us/08ethnic.html

27One might also consider more favorable tax write-offs for student loan payments, although this obviates the central question: will someone with $200,000 in debt want to start a company, feel empowered to realize a great idea, or start a family?

28Ron Lieber, “How Debt Can Destroy a Budding Relationship,” The New York Times, September 3, 2011, available online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/04/your-money/04money.html?pagewanted=1

29David Segal, “Is Law School a Losing Game?”, The New York Times, January 8, 2011, available online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/09/business/09law.html?src=me&ref=homepage

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