Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Compare and Contrast

It isn't often that you can see a historical inflection point this clearly.

Posted on the same day, these two articles need to be read next to each other.

In essence, at the very moment that American higher education is facing its worst fiscal challenges in living memory, the Chinese system is expanding at a record clip. All over Asia, higher ed is a rapid growth industry. Asian colleges are building capacity and cutting-edge facilities at the exact same time that American colleges and universities are finding that even adjuncting-out the faculty won't balance the books anymore.

This is not good.

For the latter half of the twentieth century, we made a habit of importing the best minds from around the world for grad school. Many of them stuck around, and we're still living off the benefits of that. A few years ago, when post 9-11 xenophobia was at its peak and the Bush administration clamped down on foreign graduate students, Australian universities reaped the benefit of wonderful Asian grad students who, in sunnier times, would have come here. Now those graduate students will have the option of staying closer to home, and bestowing the spinoff economic benefits on their home countries. We won't be able to import the world's best talent as easily anymore.

Nor, apparently, will we be able to grow our own. The University of California's fiscal troubles are well-documented. The scarier part is that they aren't unique. Lower-tier schools are feeling the pinch, too, and for a whole host of structural reasons that I (cough) may have mentioned once or twice. The IHE piece details the shift at San Joaquin Delta College, where they've moved from 'across the board' cuts to individual program eliminations. They've decided -- correctly, in my view -- that it's better to do some things well than to do everything badly. But what a horrible choice! And the class sizes mentioned in the article are simply nuts.

There's a larger historical undercurrent here that's easy to miss. For a while, the U.S. had an effective monopoly on manufacturing, since Europe and Japan were bombed out and the other great powers labored under the illusion that a single Minister of Production could take care of everything. Now, Europe and Japan have more modern facilities than we do, in many instances, and China and India are modernizing at breakneck speed (even if, in China's case, it still pays lip service to an old ideology). Europe and Japan are free of the deadweight cost of an idiotic health care system, and China and India have ridiculously low costs of production. We no longer have the monopoly profits to pay for both guns and butter, and for reasons I still don't understand, we'd rather fight two wars of choice at the same time than educate our young.

For a while, we were able to be both thoughtless and successful. But that was a historical fluke. It wasn't sustainable, and the infrastructure of that society is coming apart.

It's easy to blame this administrator or that provost for getting something wrong, and there's surely no shortage of examples of bad decisions. But these changes go well beyond any individual campus or system.

If we're going to avoid the fate of the American carmakers in their encounter with Asian companies, we'll have to change the game, and quickly. That will mean letting go of some historical survivals, and recasting some fundamentals. Otherwise, we're General Motors, circa 1972 or 1999. It's rarely as obvious as it is now.