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Reforming tertiary education: what can we learn from the Californian system?

Reforming tertiary education: what can we learn from the Californian system?

18 November 2016, by Dr Geoff Sharrock

Simon Marginson’s latest book is based on the Clark Kerr lectures he gave at Berkeley in late 2014. The Dream is Over: The Crisis of Clark Kerr’s California Idea of Higher Education is a powerful work of scholarship and synthesis. It tracks historical shifts in American politics, society, and economy; the rise of global science; and the worldwide effects of global university rankings. It has wide implications for policy makers, within and beyond the US.

The book traces how California’s 1960 Master Plan for higher education has fared over half a century and also considers the legacy of its chief architect, Clark Kerr. The Plan is set in its historical context of economic growth and social optimism. The vision it promoted of a more “meritocratic” society, Marginson notes, was based on a potent blend of

“two narratives that still in one form or another shape expectations of higher education all over the world: education as human capital, as economic progress, and education as equality of opportunity, as social justice.”

Under the Plan the elite, research-intensive University would recruit from the top eighth of Californian school leavers, the four-year colleges would draw from the top third, and the two-year community colleges would provide open access to the rest.

Mission accomplishments

The Plan’s basic structure remains; but what has its system achieved? Marginson finds that the “goal of excellence has been realized more completely than that of access”. The University of California has gone from strength to strength. But with state finances faltering post-2008, the two-year colleges no longer offer universal access and their credential power in labour markets is weak. As well, the transfer functions to higher credentials are limited: as a system, the pyramid is too steep.

Drawing on the work of Thomas Piketty and others, Marginson concludes that with the rise of an anti-state, anti-tax political economy, US settings have become more conducive to “plutocracy”. Comparing Piketty’s now famous “one percent” across nations he observes that the share of all earnings received by the top 1% of citizens in the US in 2010 was 20%, compared with 15% in the UK, 12% in Canada, 10% in Europe and 10% in Australia.

Thus mass access to higher education created real social opportunity only under earlier US conditions of higher growth, higher taxation and funded expansion. Today, elite US credentials offer sheltered paths to elite US careers. As merit is reframed as cultural capital, the human capital theory that supported California’s original Plan is exposed as “a myth”. Thus the “1960s dream is over”.

At the end of the book and elsewhere, Marginson suggests how the Master Plan might be renewed. His proposals include an expansion of degree places at the state level, and the introduction of HELP-type loans at the US federal level to finance them.

Global influences

Meanwhile, within and beyond the US, global trends and rankings have reframed Clark Kerr’s famous “multiversity” as the “idea of a global multiversity”. Yet for most systems, Marginson argues, this is a model that “not all can perform, not all should perform, and none can finance”. The worldwide pursuit of “world class” status skews investment as governments fail to focus enough on national needs, or to build on national traditions. The non-university elements of Clark Kerr’s own more grounded system perspective have been lost in translation.

Marginson notes the great irony: Kerr’s most famous work, The Uses of the University, framed in its time as a reality check on the abstract appeal of John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, has become an ideal type.

Multi-faceted Clark Kerr

The book paints a vivid portrait of Clark Kerr as a university president, scholar and system architect. As president he was a skilled mediator, promoting “an inclusive, many-sided idea of the university”. As a scholar his Godkin lectures at Harvard in 1963, the basis for The Uses of the University, are “unparalleled in clarity of exposition and insight into modern higher education.”

As a system architect Kerr was hard-headed about the design dilemmas and trade-offs inherent in the sector’s divergent aims and interests. The expected growth in enrolments could not be funded if too many colleges sought research university status. And the University of California had its own prime position to protect. As Kerr put it (wearing his president hat):

“The strategy of the University was clear…We did not want to share resources with sixteen additional “university” campuses…who would then claim lower teaching loads and higher research subsidies at greater cost…What we needed were three improved models – the open access model, the polytechnic model, and the research university model.”

Lessons for Australian tertiary education

The book has relevance well beyond the US. Any nation facing growing demand for tertiary education, particularly those with flagging economies or fiscal constraints or both, must face some version of the design dilemmas that the Master Plan faced back then, and grapples with today.

Australian tertiary education has taken a different path. It now seems open to market and policy shifts at least as transformative as the Dawkins reforms at the end of the 1980s. At that time, some thought that a Californian-style “network” university or polytechnic system might emerge from the institutional amalgamations in some Australian states.

But it never happened. Unlike California, our state governments had no strong funding role to play. They had little say in reshaping the system under the Dawkins process, or in supervising it since. They could not, for example, balance the volume of student places for diplomas versus degrees if institutions favoured the latter.

Today, university education and vocational education are not well linked and there are resource disparities between the sectors. Overlapping regulation at State and Commonwealth levels has allowed state based private vocational providers to offer high priced, low value credentials financed primarily with Commonwealth funded student loans.

In 2014, our most recent attempt to reform a tertiary education sector facing rapid expansion and fiscal constraint tried to do too much without enough detailed planning. As a plan for the sector’s future, it did not fare well. Perhaps the next round of reform should consider the question Marginson put to his Californian audience: “What would Clark Kerr do?”.

Geoff Sharrock is Program Director at the LH Martin Institute.

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November 23rd, 2016 at 1:10am
Qingcheng LI
Kerr's Master Plan and higher education were mimiced by other countries and regions,among them China was also inclueded. In the later 3-4 decades the higher education idea did contribute a lot for educating talents especaily for students from low socialeconomic status.Now with the changing political and ecnomic settings , the idea surely is not going as smoothly as before.
Different from the US, almost 90% China's universities are enough funded by public funds together with family investment, which means goverments have much say in reshaping higher education system.But I am skeptical if we could have a Californian-style “network” university because of too conservative policy-makers.
November 23rd, 2016 at 10:41am
Geoff Sharrock
Qingcheng Li, much thanks for reading my post and for contributing your comment. The book has a very interesting chapter on higher education in China and in East Asia more generally.
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