When Janet Napolitano was appointed president of the University of California System, I was disappointed. Just when the UC System really needed a visionary educational leader who could inspire faculty and administrators to make the significant changes needed for the university to thrive in a significantly new environment, a career big government bureaucrat was put at the helm.
Unfortunately, President Napolitano's new budget proposal reflects her background- it is pure big government response to a problem. The UC must have a 5%/year increase in funding from the State, or the students must pay it via big tuition increases. All problems will be solved with more funding, not better management, not getting rid of waste, not creativity, not new approaches, just more money. Sic transit California as a center of can-do creativity - just turn on the money tap.
Governor Brown, on the other hand, says the UC needs to reduce spending and limit faculty and executive pay raises. He suggests such "radical" solutions as increased online learning, competency based education, and three-year degrees.Not surprisingly, many interested parties object strongly to the Governor's approach, saying reducing costs will necessarily lead to fewer students in the system or diminished educational experiences for students, or both.
All of the Governor's suggestions deserve to be looked at in detail: almost all (and more) will need to be adopted in one form or another to put the UC on a firm path to excellence in the future. However, there are numerous even more straightforward changes that can be relatively easily made that would do a great deal to improve the budget situation while improving student learning outcomes.
A number of organizations have looked hard at how to use technology to cut costs and increase student learning simultaneously. Among the best known of these is the National Center for Academic Transformation. NCAT carries out redesign projects in colleges and universities using information technology to redesign learning environments that lead to lower costs and increased student learning:
Of the 156 completed projects, 72% improved student learning outcomes; 28% showed equivalent student learning. Overall, these redesigns reduced their instructional costs by 34% on average, ranging from 5% to 81%. Other positive outcomes included increased course-completion rates, improved retention, better student attitudes toward the subject matter and increased student and faculty satisfaction with the new mode of instruction.
Thus, NCAT redesigned managed to simultaneously lower course cost by an average cost of 34%, and increase student satisfaction and learning. These redesigns are not radical redesigns that force major change in the business model of the institution. They are things that any institution can easily do, saving money and increasing student learning and satisfaction.
Many other institutions have experimented with ways to lower costs without harming students. For example, the biology department at the University of Washington responded to budget cuts in an innovation way that was summarized in Science Daily:
Students overall performed better -- and educationally disadvantaged students generally made even greater strides than everyone else -- in an introductory biology course at a university where recent budget woes doubled class sizes for the course, cut lab times and reduced the number of graduate teaching assistants. The keys to success are instructors who guide learning rather than lecture and who structure courses so students develop critical thinking and problem solving skills.
Pretty impressive response to budget woes! And students ended up learning more that when the money flowed! Shows what creativity and good management can accomplish.
Governor Brown's most egregious suggestion is that UC use more online courses in order to expand capacity at lower cost. This has led to significant push back on educational grounds because online certainly leads to lower learning, etc. Once again, existing data are unwelcome for the proponents of the status quo. Way back in 2010 the Department of Education did a huge meta-analysis of educational studies that compared learning outcomes for traditional classes that were face to face to classes that were all or part online. Only studies were considered in which students were randomly assigned to one or the other type of class. Among the conclusions:
Students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.
This study was carried out long before the explosive improvement in online pedagogy that has recently occured, so it is likely that even stronger statements could be made now. Maybe Governor Brown isn't so off base as his critics claim?
Finally, the size and cost of the bureaucracy of the UC is legendary among state systems. If Napolitano really wants to lower costs, she should look to the empire that she has inherited, its redundancies and the brakes that it puts on beneficial entrepreneurial behaviour. But then, what bureaucrat wants to cut down on the size of his or her own empire?
The UC system as it is structured today will always require large real annual increases in income that will have to be provided either by students or the State (or both). At the same time, it lacks the capacity needed to meet workforce needs of the next few decades. The UC was defined by halcyon times when State revenues overall were growing rapidly, and consequently higher education was not in direct competition with pressing State expenditures on such areas as K-12 education, health care and public safety. If the UC is to remain the finest public university system in the world, it will have to respond creatively to changing economic and demographic realities.
Unfortunately for the students, the taxpayers, and the future health of the system, the Regents are focusing once again on defending the status quo. They seem to think their job is to protect the current system, not to create the future.