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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Tallahassee Two-Step

Florida Governor Rick Scott's "Blue Ribbon Task Force on Higher Education Reform" has finally issued its final report.  Designed "to advance the State University System's Constitutional charge to operate, regulate, and control, and be fully responsible for the management of the whole university system" the report has already generated considerable controversy.  And well it should, because the Report proposes two fundamental changes in the relationship of higher education and society each of which are ideologically driven with little, if any, evidence to suggest that they make sense.

The first proposal, and the one that has generated the greatest controversy, is the Task Force's argument in favor of differential tuition based on major.  The Task Force argues that the Florida University System should charge less tuition for those who major in what it calls "high-skill, high-wage, high-demand (market driven) bachelor's degree programs identified by the Legislature." (22

The notion of differential tuition is not, of course, new.  But Florida has turned its rationale upside-down.  Normally differential tuition proposals are based on the different costs of running different programs (if your major is more expensive to run you should pay more etc) or, when there is some sort of relationship to future earnings that those entering more lucrative fields can afford more (part of the rationale for higher professional school fees).   But the Florida Task Force operates on the opposite assumption: that costs of programs should not matter and that those who allegedly have worse job options should pay more for their programs than those who will move into fields that make them immediately employable.  Or to put it more bluntly, that philosophy students should pay more for their education than STEM students because there are more jobs available in STEM fields than jobs as philosophers.   Of course, as Elizabeth Propp Berman recently pointed out this job driven logic doesn't even make economic sense:  economic opportunities for most STEM fields are not higher than for many humanities or liberal arts fields, and the sorts of skills provided in the humanities and social sciences are in great demand in the economy.

But there is a political initiative operating here as well.  The Task Force leaves it up to the Legislature to determine which fields are socially necessary and to interpret market signals.  The Florida Legislature already has significant power over its public colleges and universities.  But the Task Force seeks to grant the Legislature the power to penalize students for taking courses of study that it deems unimportant to the market in the state.

There are contradictions aplenty in the Task Force Report.  The Task Force is clearly aware of the differential costs of academic programs.  Indeed, their starting point is a recognition that STEM fields costs money, compel scientists and universities to seek Federal funding, and that in order to achieve that Federal funding the University system must make capital investments to prove its worthiness to make grants work. (3-4)  So it is not as if they do not understand that from the vantage point of the University it costs more to run STEM programs than other programs.  And as their inclusion of the vague category of "globalization" in their list of strategic fields (23) suggests a recognition that there is more to society and economy than STEM.  But in the end, they seem determined both to discourage all majors they think non-essential and to ask those who they think have less job prospects to subsidize the education of those they think have better job prospects.

Ultimately, then, the Task Force Report is ideological not educational.  Despite the need in an increasingly interconnected world for students able to navigate the cultures, histories, and languages of the world with skillful analysis, the Task Force considers the liberal arts ultimately ornamental and self-indulgent.  Moreover, despite the long history of research and knowledge production that exceeds the immediate demands of the economy, the Task Force wants to subject the choices of study to the immediate desires of a politically interpreted market.  And despite the importance of academic curiosity to both students and the larger community, the Task Force sees the pursuit of the liberal arts as a waste to society.  The Task Force, then, is intensifying the ongoing effort to de-legitimate disciplines that appear insufficiently pro-business.

Faculty in Florida have put up an online petition to oppose this effort to reduce Higher Ed to an appendage of a particular political economic vision.  You can show solidarity with them by signing it.  It can be found here.


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Gerry Barnett said...

I am not persuaded that the costs of majors are all that different. Until you get an audit of actual expenditures on students, by major, you only have the assertions by university administrators.

In terms of instruction, there just is not that much observable difference between delivery of a science major and an arts or humanities major. There are labs, yes, in some programs. But for the specialized lab in chemistry there is also a theatre for drama or a radio station for communications. As for the actual instruction, rather than ancillary assets, doesn't it look rather blandly the same--TAs and lecturers for the lower division courses, ladder faculty teaching the upper division courses, and the differences largely in the age of the classrooms in which students meet? Other than that, it would appear that the biggest difference in the expense of majors is the salaries of faculty in certain fields, typically ones with strong extramural funding programs. But even here, the higher salaries are to a degree offset by the % time that is then allocated to organized research, not to undergraduate instruction.

What is spent on undergraduate instruction, and what is *charged* to undergraduate instruction accounts appear to be quite different. It is entirely likely, as Charles Schwartz has argued, that undergraduates now pay the full cost of their education at UC--and more.

Thesis 1: The state does not subsidize UC students' education. The students subsidize university research administration and financial adventures unrelated to instruction, and they do so by participating in a speculative debt bubble encouraged by university administrators.

Demonstrate the status of Thesis 1 one way or the other and we can have a discussion about the rest.

Chris Newfield said...

yes an implication of Gerry's comment is that the cheaper programs (because their research is cheap or unfunded) in the arts and humanities will be forced to charge students more such that there will be MORE of a surplus to be used to subsidize high-cost STEM research. so the economics of the task force report are consistent with the status quo subsidy model, and intensify it

Michael Meranze said...

Chris, that is right up to a point. The Task Force is well aware of the greater costs to science research programs and supports them in STEM fields but their argument takes a new direction in that they are trying to use price to discourage people from taking majors that the Task Force (or at least the Legislature reading market signals) considers unworthy subjects. Their hope is to stop funding these subjects by reducing student demand. In the end they would lessen the cross-subsidization by lessening tuition revenues in the "worthless" majors.

Nor do I think that that really is the implication of Gerry's comment--which seems to be about how if you look at instruction alone the Humanities are just as expensive as STEM fields. But Gerry I am having trouble understanding the point of your comment. No one here is advocating differential tuition or calling for increased tuition in Florida. Nor do I see the relevance of Charlie's data which is about Berkeley. I am not an expert on the Florida system by any means (and I hope that people who work in Florida will speak up) but the work and research structures at most public institutions have very little similarity with Berkeley. They have been undergoing cuts starting from a lower base than UC has for years.

The world is not UC and sometimes the UC analogy is not apt. To my mind the real analogy with what is being proposed in Florida is the efforts in England to control the flow of students into certain fields and to shift the costs even more onto students while allowing a growth of the for-profit sector. I hope to get a post together on those analogies when I have a chance.

Gerry Barnett said...

My point is not that the humanities are just as expensive as the sciences. The educational cost is a non-issue, and it would work to the arguments of folks concerned about the direction UC is taking not to accept the premise. Charlie's data *is* relevant. It may be the most relevant thing. His estimates do not rely on some distinctive strangeness at Berkeley having to do with instruction. Berkeley would appear to be very typical of a large research university.

If you don't care about Thesis 1, then why grind about differential pricing for majors? As Chris points out, raising the price for humanities majors, or arts majors, or anything non-STEM, just piles more money into the research and financial adventures side of administration. Differential major pricing inserts into undergraduate programs the kind of financial concerns that students have faced with programs in medicine and law for some time. But it is pricing based on a false premise, or so Thesis 1 proposes. It is a deception that plays on the now trendy idea that our society needs more STEM majors, despite Vannevar Bush's concern about just such a fixation, and despite Neal Stephenson's quip that we are the age that takes our best and brightest to write spam filters.

Michael Meranze said...

Gerry, but the whole point of the post is not that they are basing this on costs so that isn't the logic. Their point has to do with not spending money on majors that they don't like. In the Florida case the cost of research/instruction is not in play. The point i am making is that this is a new inflection to the attack on the humanities and if we don't see that that is the problem.

Also, the Florida system is not just large research universities. So the Berkeley argument is not all that relevant to many of the institutions being affected.

Chris Newfield said...

You can both be right at the same time: higher tuition in arts, hum, social sciences (like the Anthro the Fla gov regrets his daughter studied) can both reduce their enrollments by penalizing those students financially and provide more money per student FTE that is available for redirection. Even if the number of students in AHS goes down, the "profit' on each goes up. It isn't the best revenue strategy, but then the whole thing is being cast as a public service strategy (creating more STEM students).

Gerry Barnett said...

They aren't spending any money on the majors they don't like if all the money they spend comes from those majors. They are then saying the society should not have the benefit of those areas of study even if those areas are fully funded by the tuition they bring in.

I don't actually care about the logic reflected in the FL story. I am not doing a close read of that story for motivational nuance. I am pointing out that the claim of differential major costs *is* based on an assumption that states subsidize undergraduate education, and therefore it is a state's right to withdraw that subsidy for what are deemed undesirable areas of study. The argument of Thesis 1 is that there is no such subsidy, and the "withdrawal" of it, meaning the "raising of price", is no more than an impulsive way of increasing the sources of funding for preferred administrative adventures, generally involving expansion in non-instructional areas. The only logic to it is the love of money and an idea about how to get more, apparently from folks willing to go into debt to study Chinese literature or make sculptures or learn how to dance.

Anonymous said...

Michael et al, The comparison with Britain is worth pursuing, but one would need to take into account Canada as well as Europe, and then one would see the US slow to direct its research and teaching at public universities towards specific research priorities (and Florida in this case a poorly articulated avant garde, but a nightmarish version). This conversation is very late in the US and the issue is more complicated than simply another symptom of privatization etc. The SSHRC in Canada the ERc in Europe, like the AHRC in UK, all have large structures already in place for directing research toward priority areas, and instruction as well, in ways that can be intelligent and not focused as another "attack" on humanities. A larger picture worth exploring.

Chris Newfield said...

I'm not sure whether Anon is suggesting political direction of research priorities is good. In the UK, the Browne report simply assumed that Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences produced no socially valuable research and in effect privatized them by removing the teaching grant. I will look at Canada, thanks for the suggestion, but all the examples I've seen assume that college is about producing some combination of accountants, marketing specialists, and IP-generating STEM personnel. Our societies are so harmonious and efficient that cultural knowledge is no longer necessary, or something. Public interest research is great but can't be achieved through a rigged top-down, nondialogical process.

Anonymous said...

On the Canadian comparison, a good place to start is the recent essays in response to the new SSHRC plans for the next target areas. (in recent years Canadian jobs , CRCS, grants, have been targeted to 4 areas, across disciplines.)

University Affairs also has lots of coverage on this.
On the UK comparison, "privatization" is an oversimplification, as many UK new universities were in dire trouble before 2008, with overextended unpopular programmes and in need of serious changes and some cuts. privatization is part of the move to cut supplements for humanites having smaller classes. but there are real problems there that need more than just more public funds in order to improve.

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