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Monday, December 31, 2012

Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 in Review: Major Higher Ed Trends

2012 was like all years full of heroic efforts and thoughtless abetting of great evil.  In American higher education, it was the year in which the worst didn't happen.

Here are my candidates for this year's major trends. My New Year's Resolution is not to let my higher ed thinking be shaped by major trends. Resolution 2 is to map a comprehensive alternative funding structure and agenda. But that's for 2013.  Here's 2012.

1.Mitt Romney defeated.  Higher education won't have to face the ice-age austerity that Romney-Ryan would have imposed on higher ed along with the rest of the public sector, or his plan to reprivatize student loans among other things.

2. Austerity from Obama.  Now that he has been liberated from the need to win elections, Obama is doing exactly what he did before this liberation, which is negotiating in back rooms over how few resources to restore to the middle classes and public agencies.  Although various public university officials have called for new federal support for public universities, there was no sign of any interest in politics in additional support for public universities.


3. Growing Sense that Public Cuts need to End. Secretary of Educational Arne Duncan said that state cuts should stop, and so did Bill Gates.   This is not the same as recovery, but it's a lot better than more cuts.

4. New (Sub)Normal for State Funding. In spite of gestures towards rebuilding, 2012 confirmed new quasi-permanent, semi-poverty baselines for major public systems: the definitive State Higher Education Finance report in mid-year that per-student state allocations hit a 25-year low in 2010, before falling again in 2011. Formerly well-funded publics like UC were reverting to the national mean.

5. Widened Awareness of the Tuition Bubble.  Politicians of both parties campaigned against continuing the tradition of tuition increases at higher than inflation; legions of commentators denounced them.  LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik called for the return to a free UC education.   Big new public investment was off the table, but so were large tuition hikes at public universities suffering from a secular decline in resources. This is short-term good news for students' wallets, though not for their educations.

6. Increased Political Intervention in Public Universities.  Job woes, tuition hikes, the student debt crisis, and business criticism converged to make higher education a sector that politicians felt called to manage. Our local example is California Governor Jerry Brown's lecture to the UC Regents about how online is the future of higher ed, but there were many others: Texas Gov. RIck Perry renewed his call for a $10,000 college degree, and was echoed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker proposed tying appropriations to completion rates - and so on. The major outcome is the next item.

7.  Public Higher Ed Framed as Worforce Development.  Academic experts nicely described the educational goals of the higher learning, but none of this creative thinking appeared in public.   Barack Obama showed interest in community college investment to create more high-tech industrial workers, but that is all.  The country's premier college brands will keep their very high end academic missions, but throughout the presidential campaign there was little hint of college's larger public, intellectual, cultural, or even scientific goals.  Though the arts and humanities are always first on the chopping block, basic science is right behind.  The University of Florida gave us an unfriendly reminder when it eliminated its computer science department. 

8. Adjuncting Crisis Becomes More Visible.  The job markets for PhDs only got a little bit better. The MLA reported that that foreign language and English jobs are still a quarter and a third below their 2007-08 levels, which were already none too good.  History saw slight improvement. But science PhDs weren't doing much better. The status of the reserve army of PhDs received renewed attention both for their majority share of courses they taught and for their economic hardship: "The PhD Now Comes with Food Stamps."

9. The Academic Management Crisis Rears its Head.  This was most obvious in the Penn State child rape scandal, which led to a sweeping condemnation of much of Penn State's senior management and a criminal indictment of the former president for concealment of child abuse. It also appeared in the University of Viriginia presidential firing fiasco, and in lesser form in the UC neo-logo debacle. Massive outcries in both cases forced the rescinding of decisions that had been enabled by the near-hermetic isolation of senior managers or trustees from the academic community at large.  Students, instructors, researchers, frontline staff--the direct participants in the educational enterprise were typically never consulted, and major errors were the result.  Faculty anger erupted in all of these cases, and was often focused on perceived management disdain for the expertise and experience of the faculty who are subject to what are so often unilateral, nonexpert, short-term, superficial responses to serious problems. As the higher ed crisis wore on, senior management often appeared uninformed, isolated, reactive, deeply distrustful of its own community, captured by a narrow and no longer particularly successful American executive culture, and unable and unwilling to curate the distinctive, energetic, brilliant, but fragile university communities with which they were charged. Terran Lane offered a good summary of the general issues in his post, "On Leaving Academia."  On the other side, the faculty were similarly distrustful of their administrators, and seemed to focus largely on personal side deals that serve their own self-interest.  Their civic mindedness erupted from time to time in angry denunciations, but this was not the same as steady policy engagement, leaving the governance field to the very people that many faculty see as understanding nothing. Obviously this was unhealthy situation that had not abated at year's end.
 
10. Innovation Funding Was Scarcer than Ever.  The iwas the backstory of the fabled "Year of the MOOC."  Public universities always depend on public funds, pooled with tuition money, for all general teaching and research upgrades.  Many of these upgrades are very expensive, like the infrastructure for new scientific equipment or computer technology.  Universities are full of people who create new educational strategies and technologies and would like to combine the two, but don't have the money to do either.  To use the MOOC issue as an important example, in 2012 the private university founders of edX put up in $60 million in investment capital, Coursera raised an announced $16 million in early rounds, and Udacity had attracted $21 million  (I assume these estimates are incomplete). In contrast, UC's Online Education program (UCOE) tried to start up on a $7 million loan.  Online ed is nothing if not an arms race in production values (note the TV studio in recent NYT coverage), with the standard being a kind of TED University (I wrote about this here).  Since online companies can create an all-star staff with faculty from any university, working technology capital is more important than human capital, and the "new normal" for public Us is to have none.
 11. Faculty Morale Did Not Improve.  There is little real data on this, but without a specific outrage like a collective furlough or a baseless presidential firing, faculty seem to be in governance hibernation. I know no one who is trying to get more involved in the university as an institution, including, much of the time, myself. At one point this year I began to log the number of times I had the unbidded thought, "higher ed is just another crap sector now. How can I get out?"

I prefer to think that the worse is over--at least for New Year's Eve. The Remaking blog wishes you Happy New Year--and a great year of remaking whatever holds you back.

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