In October of 2007, The Los Angeles Times ran a report on the growing concerns and possible consequences of the perennial under-funding of the UC system stating that the UC administrators and faculty fear that waning commitment is eroding the 10-campus system’s reputation for excellence and will trigger a slide toward mediocrity. The cause of concern was the 2004 funding deal titled the Higher Education Compact. The Compact guaranteed a specific annual increase in state funds in exchange for the University drastically reducing its spending and raising student fees on an average of 10% annually. Never heard about this deal? Not entirely surprising considering that The Times stated it was never discussed in any legislature, brought before any hearing, or voted on in any manner.
To be fair, the UC system was in a state of financial crisis at the time. According to a report by The University Committee on Planning and Budget (UCPB), entitled Current Budget Trends and The Future of the University of California, between the 01-02 and 04-05 fiscal years funding for the UC system fell by one-third and the student share of funding went up by over 50%. The Compact was an attempt to stop the bleeding and provide a semblance of financial security to the UC. The UC may have not have had much choice either. The Futures report, as it is called for short, states that University leaders were convinced “reportedly by explicit threats from the Director of Finance “ that failure to make such an agreement with the Governor would lead to even larger cuts. But in spite of all this, the Compact has not been honored and the students are paying dearly, often in cash or credit.
The Compact has not been honored because there has been no money. When Governor Swarzenegger unveiled his new budget for the upcoming fiscal year there was a shortfall of $16 billion and he has proposed 10% across-the-board cuts. Furthermore, according to a UCSB professor familiar with the budget, there is a gap of $417 million between the Regent’s budget proposal and the Governor’s. A 7% increase in student fees was already guaranteed by the Compact but to ameliorate the damage of the new cuts the UC Office of the President will most likely raise it to 10% and it could go as high as 15-20%. To me and you, that’s approximately $260 to $500 more each quarter. And it only goes up each year.
And though they are paying more, students are getting less for their money. Because of the cuts in spending stipulated by the Compact, faculty and staff salaries lag behind comparable institutions by 15-20%. Because the University cannot stay competitive with its wages we are in constant danger of losing our top-quality professors to better-funded institutions. And without an adequately compensated staff, the University will be unable to maintain the high level of student services that makes this campus, as well as the other UCs, so great. When this happens, what is largely considered one of the best public university systems in the nation, starts down a slippery slope to unexceptional and unremarkable.
In order to make up for the lost funding the UC must increasingly, and with greater urgency, turn to private funds. By and large, according to the aforementioned UCSB professor, this means higher student fees. If the UC stays on its current Compact budget path, The Futures report estimates that undergraduate fees would be as high as $8,000 by 2011. For any freshmen reading this, that’s $24,000 to complete your senior year. If the UC wanted to return to the adequate funding level, last seen in 2001, undergraduate fees are estimated to have to be around $15,000-$18,000 per quarter in 2011. Though it is politically unlikely that Sacramento would let the tuition reach this level, it illustrates just how dire the cuts have become and just how much will be needed to fix the problem. Not only that but the higher tuition drives away out-of-state and foreign students and limits the opportunity for lower-income students to achieve a higher education thereby reducing the effectiveness of the UC system to help improve the state of California.
Privatization also means a larger reliance on donors but in general these donations are often for a specific cause and do little to improve the general education of the University. It is also possible that the desperation for funds could cause the UC to accept donations from controversial companies such as Phillip Morris USA and BP oil.
Simply put, the UC cannot stay on this path, for as the Futures report gravely states, “It appears that the Compact does not in fact stop the University’s financial decline, or the weakening of its contributions to the people of California.”
Even for those graduating this year, the financial situation should be of some concern. If the quality of the University deteriorates, so does the value of your new degree. And if ten years from now you were suddenly thrust back into the job market, it would be far better to have graduated from a respected and prestigious university rather than from some unknown and mediocre one.
How then to move forward? What solutions are being offered? The budget-savvy UCSB professor told me that the first step is public acknowledgement of the detrimental effects of reduced investment. For this to happen, it becomes the responsibility of our government to correctly explain how privatization has failed to fill-in for reduced investment. We must demand from our leaders adequate explanations for the condition of our public intuitions and hold them accountable for their inability to maintain an acceptable state of affairs. It is also our responsibility to come to a reasonable and realistic conclusion about what constitutes an acceptable state of affairs. We should come to terms with what it will cost to maintain the things we often take for granted: world-class public universities, pristinely preserved state parks, a sustainable water supply. And we need to understand and evaluate the cost of the things we may wish to have, like universal healthcare and a safe, efficient highway and public transport system. These are of course broad and general sentiments where as specific solutions will be needed. But for those solutions to be actualized the public will have to understand that you get what you pay for. How much we are willing to pay must be the result of a frank and open discussion and it ought to be led by our elected leaders. The end of something for nothing is rapidly approaching and we as a community must decide what it is we want and how we are going to get it.