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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Jerry Brown, the LAO, and the Logic of Austerity

The undeniable crisis of student debt has focused political debate on the question of college costs.  Unfortunately state and federal politicians have concentrated their rhetoric and policy proposals on efforts to limit funding for Higher Education (as in arbitrarily constructed tuition limits or the imposition of state funding cuts); the search for technological ways to avoid broader social choices (as with online); or efforts to limit what disciplines students have access to (as in Rick Scott's plan to impose financial penalties for choosing certain fields of study).   Although the attention to student debt and the burdens rising tuition places on families is overdue, the conventional wisdom all turns in one way or another on the reduction of access to quality higher ed for students in the future (either by limiting their credits, driving them through college more quickly, denying them the residential experience, or simply failing to fund colleges and universities adequately).  As with so much else in our austerity addled age, the policy response to crises created by the stagnation of wages and the retreat of the social state is to tell people to settle for less in the future.

For nearly half a century, California sought a different path: codified in the Master Plan (although predating it), the state committed its resources according to the notion that it could create and sustain a system of higher education that would, in turn help ensure mass access to quality higher education.  This mass education, in turn, helped to enable California to sustain an economy based on knowledge industries and human creativity.  This vision collapsed in the last decade.  To revive it would take political leadership with a commitment to renewing California's commitment to broad based prosperity.

Unfortunately,  Jerry Brown remains the once and future Austerian.  For whatever reason, oedipal or ideological, Brown has made his career out of the notion that people should expect less from their lives in society and that the government needs to minimize its efforts towards mass prosperity.  While in the 1970s, Brown could plausibly link these notions to emerging ecological concerns now he simply mimics the idea that the disordered economy of finance capital cannot be challenged but simply borne.  Under the name of fiscal prudence he doubles down on the limits to access and quality for the working and middle classes while refusing to challenge the inequalities that helped create the recent financial crisis.

Brown's commitment to austerity can be seen in his budget proposals for Higher Ed.  Although it is true that Brown declares that the state needs to "reinvest to improve the quality and affordability of California's system of Higher Education" (36) his actual policies belie this assertion.  He does propose funding increases over the next few years but his 2013-2014 budget will leave both UC and CSU each down $600 Million in state funds compared to 2007-2008. (35)  And even if the state does fulfill Brown's promises, the result after several years will be funding for UC and CSU at roughly 2010 levels--despite the rise in mandatory costs.  Brown's budget proposals will lock in a permanent underfunding of CSU and UC by the state.  In effect, Brown's vision of reinvestment is sustaining Higher Education in its present diminished state.

Sadly, Brown represents the consensus in Sacramento.  The recent Legislative Analyst Office's analysis of Brown's Higher Education proposals doubles-down on its most egregious assumptions and austerity proposals.  The LAO report criticizes Brown both for his commitment to (limited) funding increases (17-18) and opposes Brown's proposal for a tuition freeze in part because the LAO thinks that it will lead to dramatically increased tuition in the future and in part because the LAO thinks students do not contribute enough to the cost of Higher Ed. (30-31)  Instead of a tuition freeze, the LAO proposes that students be expected to cover a certain percentage of educational costs and that tuition rise or fall according to that standard.  If Brown admits a funding problem but is unwilling to solve it, the LAO does not admit a funding problem to begin with.

Central to their position is a joint refusal to acknowledge the substantial difference between state funding and tuition as the economic base for higher education.  Both Brown and the LAO treat the transfer of burden from the government to students as inevitable and rational (although they do want to argue at the margins about what those burdens on students should be).  In keeping with the dominant economic thinking of the last few decades they see no difference between public and private debt--or more precisely they seem more worried about public than private debt despite the reality that private debt is undermining the economic recovery.  But just as importantly--and on this point, they support the austerity bubble-- they cannot imagine demanding of corporations or those who have benefited from increasing inequality to bear their fair share of burdens.

But as dangerous as their approach is in general--in the case of higher education it is particularly self-defeating.  Both the Governor (39) and the LAO (24-26) emphasize the need to improve the state's record in enabling students to complete their degree work.  Both however overlook one substantial reason that students take longer to complete their degrees than in the past--the hours of employment they take on in order to pay for their part of their college education.  As is typical of austerity economics, the Governor and LAO's blithe acceptance of the necessity of decreased state support has shifted the burden onto students, compelled them to spend more time at jobs and less time as students, and therefore slowed down their progress to degree.  No fiddling with "bottleneck" courses will compensate for this time and labor.

Indeed, an understanding of the significance of this shift of burdens reveals how shallow the Governor's understanding of Higher Ed is, and how problematic LAO's critique of his suggestions are.  The telling point, not surprisingly, is their shared belief that online education will reduce instructional costs.  But what they fail to acknowledge is that they have no genuine means of judging instructional costs.

Let's take the LAO because they have the virtue of laying out their thinking.  The LAO insists that spending per degree is high in California (11) and assumes that that is because of instructional inefficiency.  But their position is based on a set of unjustified slippages.  First, they take the total core funding of the university systems and the number of degrees and divide the former from the latter; then compare costs to other universities in the same institutional category.  They do not calculate different costs of living, of materials, and of space in California compared to other places.  Even more importantly, they assume that dividing total revenues by degrees provides a meaningful window into instructional costs and efficiencies.  But as we all know that is a poor proxy; there are far too many other sources of costs (pertaining to administration, compliance, research, student services, etc) to allow the state government to assume that the instructional costs of California Higher Ed are unusually high and to use that as an excuse to reduce students shared learning experience while increasing their burdens.

In response, the University systems must do more than simply thank Brown for not cutting them further.  In the case of UC two things need to be done to start a new debate on Higher Ed.  First, UCOP must stop allowing the State to treat public funds and student tuition as interchangeable sources of revenue.  It may be impossible in the short term for the University to change this dynamic but it can at least refuse to allow the logic of this displacement to go unchallenged.  If UCOP doesn't do so then its purported concern for student's burdens will ring increasingly hollow.

But the system-wide Academic Senate has a role to play as well.  For too long, faculty have allowed the conflation of instructional costs and institutional costs to go unchallenged.   The Senate, admittedly, has limited power.  But its system-wide committees do have oversight functions and they should seek to press the administration (both in Oakland and on campuses) for a fuller accounting on costs.  Doing so will not cure our problems--indeed it will likely only open up difficult debates about priorities.  But by insisting on a clearer accounting of costs it will enable Faculty to reassert the centrality of the instructional mission to the University.  If we cannot do that we may find ourselves marginal to the Institution itself.


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