By Advait Praturi

As the world economy continues into recession, the institution known as the public university becomes a part of the dynamic conflict between market forces and government involvement. The European Studies Roundtable that met on Thursday, November 19th sought to discuss the deepening trend of the privatization of the modern public university. As global economic forces put more pressure on states to change the educational policies on which they’ve operated thus far, schools–and the students and faculty that comprise them, are adversely affected, as demonstrated by a 32% fee hike within the University of California system.

As Isaac Martin, a professor in the Department of Sociology, pointed out, the roots of the current “crisis” go back to the 1970s when Proposition 13, a motion passed by the California legislature, put a cap on revenues from property taxes. As a result, this cap on taxes restricts the California legislature from adjusting taxes. The California government spends around 3.2% of its budget on the UC system, and as the budget crisis continues to worsen, the amount that the government spends on its public universities is decreasing. This is causing the UC system to look for alternative streams of revenue, including fundraising and large fee hikes, hence pushing the UC system towards privatization, through which prospective students would have to compete financially to receive an education.

The crisis, in many respects, reflects the transformation of education from a public good into a private good. If private corporations and donors hold more sway over the university’s budget, there is a danger that their interests will have more sway over the direction of the university than public consensus, thus redefining the university’s mission from serving the public by providing education. However, there is a chance that this is not a deepening trend of privatization of the public university, but rather, the legislature’s response to a time of recession, and that it will reverse in a time of economic growth.

All the while, universities around the world are converging onto the pedestal of U.S. higher education. As the public universities decrease in affordability and in competitiveness, foreign universities are becoming more competitive. Specifically, universities in Asia have seen much improvement in this regard. Professor Ping-hui Liao from the Department of Literature discussed the increasing presence of Asian universities as competitive institutions. He discussed the changing dynamic of East Asian relations, specifically between Japan, Korea, China, and Taiwan, as they are finding more unity in the provision of public education. For example, studying at a Taiwanese university is as valid in China as studying in a Chinese university. As the higher education standards in the U.S. moves towards plateau, students or consumers of public education will begin to search elsewhere, leading to the convergence of the public university worldwide.

While public universities may begin to take private school tuition models, there are many factors to take into account. As private funding begins to increase relative to other means of funding in the university budget, professors are paid to conduct research rather than to teach, and university administrators spend more time with more billionaires because more projects depend on private philanthropy. The controversial debate finds its roots on the question of whether the public university has been handed over to private interests, or whether it is still too soon to tell. As the UC system continues to stumble in this crisis towards what this Roundtable has determined to be the privatization of the public university, it may be up to the rallied effort of students, faculty, parents and the general public to remind the legislature of the importance of public education to the current generation and the future direction of the public university.

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