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Good news and bad news for higher education

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | December 9, 2010

I am writing this blog post from London, where today, students and faculty mobilized in fierce protest against the British government’s proposed — and now officially passed — plan to raise fees for university, to about $14,000 a year, tripling what fees were up till now.

Meanwhile, the education news from California, where annual undergraduate tuition already is close to the new British fees, centers on proposals by the UC “Commission on the Future” to stave off budget deficits in the future by encouraging students to complete their undergraduate degree in three years– at the admitted cost of breadth, extracurricular activities, and study abroad– and to increase the number of students from outside California and those taking UC courses of study over the internet.

Nor is the bad news just fee increases for students. In Britain, even with fee increases, programmatic cuts threaten universities and disciplines, including archaeology. In the US, language majors at places like the University of New York at Albany  have already fallen victim to cuts.

All throughout the world, it seems, governments facing difficult financial times have been pulling back from their commitment to support access to college education for a broader population, something that was not traditional in the US or Great Britain before World War II.

While colleagues here have uniformly expressed their pride in the vocal and articulate cries of protest by their students, this has not been enough to fuel much optimism. Here, as in the US, it seems like the vocation of combined research and teaching that occupies university faculty has fallen on hard times, becoming an easy target for political grandstanding and claims by governments that some things once valued have now become superfluous or simply too expensive.

Certainly, the critical voices on the Berkeley Blog that chime in loudly whenever I or others argue for the need to continue supporting higher education don’t give me reason to think that university education, and the people who make it possible, have the support of the public.

Which is what made it so very interesting to see the results of an Associated Press poll, in conjunction with Stanford University, that covered a number of hot issues in higher education.

First, the good news: there is

overwhelming agreement that there is a link between the nation’s prosperity and the quality of its education system

with 88% of those polled agreeing, reportedly an increase from 76% over the last two years. The poll found that 80% of respondents believed that the US economy would benefit if everyone graduated from college.

Positive opinions of public universities were high, the highest of any institution of higher education: 74% of those polled rated public universities excellent or good.

But those opinions don’t translate into willingness to fund public higher education sufficiently to make that ideal a reality. Less than half of those surveyed– 42%– supported “raising taxes to pay for better education”.

As long as this personality split persists, universities will be trapped in an untenable position. We can pride ourselves on the positive opinion the public has of universities, especially public universities, and the value the public sees in university education.

But until those very same people line up in support of funding university education, we will continue to face demoralizing challenges, challenges that are leading to student uprisings in defense of education.

And maybe that’s the good news hidden in this bad news: students remembering that they have political power, if they choose to use it in future elections; students who someday will be taxpayers who may, we can hope, be less confused about cause and effect than the minority of the majority who, while prizing higher education, aren’t willing to pay for it.