Wednesday, April 30, 2014


Moving Parts

Earlier this week, Kate Bowles, an Australian academic, sent me the link to this speech by Australian Minister for Education Christopher Pyne.  The speech is about “setting universities free” in Australia to diversify their missions; he specifically cites the American model of teaching-focused undergraduate colleges as an example of a direction he’d like to see Australia move.  On the same day, I happened across this piece by Nicholas Lemann on the idea of the university, with a particular focus on the California master plan developed by Clark Kerr in the 1960’s.  Reading the two pieces next to each other generated a certain cognitive dissonance.

As an American, reading the Pyne piece was a bit jarring.  He refers repeatedly to the “autonomy” of universities as key to their successful functioning.  I gather from context that “autonomy” is a form of “pay your own way,” or a high-minded way of justifying the defunding of the sector.  Frankly, though, from an American context, it sounds like a better deal than the combination of forced austerity with ever-increasing “accountability” that we know so well.  If you don’t want to pay the piper anymore, at least stop trying to call the tune.  But I wouldn’t be surprised to see “autonomy” lead in a little while to scrutiny of some boondoggle or another, to be followed by the austerity/accountability dyad we know so well.  

Australia has a strong research university model regulated at the national level, but it doesn’t yet have sectors comparable to the four-year teaching colleges or two-year community colleges we have in the U.S.  He’s calling for increasing the diversity of institutional types, and apparently giving each type more autonomy, in the name of meeting the increasing need for higher education while supporting the international competitiveness of a few elite universities.  

I’ll admit being leery of the rhetoric of “setting institutions free,” since that’s usually used as a euphemism for budget cuts.  But I was struck by how the American system looked from the outside.

Clark Kerr’s master plan for California, drawn up in the early 1960’s when he was the chancellor of the University of California, relied exactly on a division of institutional types.  In Kerr’s plan, the elite research universities -- especially UC-Berkeley and UCLA -- would do the lion’s share of academic research.  They would pit themselves against universities from around the world.  The second tier would be bachelor’s granting colleges (the Cal State system).  Finally, community colleges located all over the state would serve both as vocational training centers and as entry points for the financially disadvantaged.  In theory, a student could start at a community college, transfer to a Cal State for a bachelor’s, and then, if so inclined, go on for graduate work at Berkeley.

As Lemann notes, though, the master plan started to spin out of control within just a few years.  The less-elite universities wanted status and funding, too, so they started trying to “raise their academic profile.”  That could involve adding graduate programs, say, or raiding the star faculty from other campuses.  The coin of the academic realm for faculty at the mid-tier schools was still research; star teachers are rarely recognized, let alone hired, beyond their home campus.  While the “system” as a whole required a certain balance, the interests of many constituent parts of the system were to move up the ranks.  Meanwhile, community colleges were increasingly blamed for taking in the students who didn’t go elsewhere.  In the years after Prop 13, the students whose public school experience had been desiccated showed up in community college, needing far more help than the system was built to provide.

In looking at the proposed plan for Australia, I couldn’t help but see some parallels.  When you “set institutions free,” their choices may or may not make sense from a systemic level.  They will choose to do what makes sense for them individually.  In the American case, that has led to a difficult combination of cost increases and economic polarization, with some weird imbalances between the parts of the system.  That’s why, for example, we continue to produce ever more liberal arts doctorates, even with steadily declining demand for them.  Each segment of the system is acting according to its own imperatives; the fact that the imperatives conflict is not any one institution’s problem.

The American system has much to be said for it, but some of its most persistent flaws stem from the difference between a coherent system and a vast collection of moving parts, each with its own imperatives and will.  Moving up the value chain is individually rational for any given campus, but when everyone tries it, you get tuition inflation.  Growing enrollments is a good move for any individual campus, but when everyone tries it at the same time and the population is flat, you’ll have issues.  

In other words, if Australia wants to learn from the American system, I’d recommend focusing less on “American” and more on “system.”  Otherwise, it will open itself up to the same kinds of tuition spirals, producer casualization, and demand imbalances we know so well.  

(Thanks to Kate Bowles for correcting mistakes about the Australian system in an earlier draft.)

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