Back to the Future: DIYU and other Thatcherisms

by zunguzungu

In her dystopic science fiction novel masquerading as progressive reform pamphlet — DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education — Anya Kamenetz argues that

“The promise of free or marginal-cost open-source content, techno-hybridization, unbundling of educational functions, and learner-centered educational experiences and paths is too powerful to ignore.”

And with a Thatcherian ownership of the future — as you can read in this excerpt — she grandly pronounces that “[t]hese changes are inevitable,” that “I have visited the university of the future,” and that “[h]ere’s what I know for sure.”

We’ve come to be very familiar with the language of neoliberal techno-reform.[1] But my first reaction to this type of claim is always the same particular kind  of skepticism: when anyone tells you with certainty what the future looks like, remember how unsuccessful everyone always is in predicting the future, how the only people who tend to be right are people — like Margaret Thatcher — who actually have the power to render their visions into reality, and how categorically wrong the whole boom-fueled globalization propaganda cult of the late 90’s turned out to be.[2] Which is why, for example, we should eventually listen much more closely to what university administrators, boards of trustees, and legislators are saying about the future of education than what a technophilic staff writer for Fast Company wants to tell us about the inevitable future. They’re the ones driving the change; she’s just the one spinning pretty pictures of it.

Which is why my second reaction is to note that nowhere in her conception of the future is there a clear sense of the past. Which is, again, always the problem with these sorts of people: with their eyes uplifted to the glorious post-Soviet future, they forget to watch out for the latest version of the Czar. And so, in the case of Kamenetz in particular, it’s particularly telling that while she has tons to say about how the future will solve the problems of the present — which she’s right to flag as limited access to and spiraling costs of education — she seems to have no sense of how we got to where we are.

Here, for example, is where I am, in the University of California, where undergraduate student fees (adjusted for inflation) have risen dramatically since 1965:


That’s a huge jump; in 2008 dollars, Californian students are paying over four times today what they did in 1965. Yet why is that student fees are rising so fast? This really is the elephant in the room: her entire analysis is premised on the notion that fees are rising because costs are rising, since cutting costs can only stem the bleeding if that’s where the blood is coming from. But it certainly isn’t at the UC. The amount the University is spending on each student, adjusted for inflation, has been dropping for years; to use the UC’s numbers,

“the state’s per-student spending for education at UC, adjusted for inflation and enrollment growth, has fallen nearly 40 percent since 1990 — from $15,860 in 1990 to $9,560 today in current, inflation-adjusted dollars.”

In other words, the university today pays 60% per student what it paid in 1990. Yet fees can rise at the same time as spending diminishes because state funding has, in the meantime, fallen off a cliff. Whereas California spent 8% of its general funds on the UC system in 1965, for example, it now pays 3.6%. We’re seeing a long term trend of disinvestment in higher education on the part of the state of California, and that massive shortfall in state funding leaves students the only people capable of picking up the slack, forcing them to pay for a massively larger proportion of the total costs. in 1967-8, for example, a Cal student paid 6% of the total whereas in 2008-9, they paid 31%:

In this graph in particular, you can see how — starting around 2000, long before the great recession — the state‘s total support flat-lined, right when student fees spiked through the roof:

I suspect there’s a connection, you know? But Kamenetz doesn’t talk much about where state budget shortfalls are coming from. If you look at the sketch she opens with in her article for The American Prospect, for example, this is how she narrates the transformation in higher ed:

For most of the thousand years or so since it was invented, a university education was thought to be suited for only a tiny group — a ruling class or a subculture of scholars. Today, nine out of 10 American high school seniors say they want to go to college…Sending your kids to college is now part of the American dream, just like homeownership. And like homeownership, it’s something for which we have been willing to go deeply into hock.

And nothing is wrong in this sketch; education has both traditionally represented a class privilege because it was restricted to elite classes — male WASPs in the US — and it was restricted to the elite classes because it opened the door to higher incomes and greater prestige. And though this situation has changed in substantial ways in the years since WWII, it is still simply a fact that a person without a college degree is shut out from a variety of opportunities; a degree is nothing like the guarantee of middle class stability that it once was, but those nine out of ten high school seniors want a college education because they understand the score.

Still, what Kamenetz is flagrantly not describing is the thing which did so much to make economic mobility a possibility (and which is now almost gone), the post-war project on the part of American liberals to bring higher education into reach of whoever was academically eligible for it. This has been a desperately unfinished project, to be sure, but it’s one whose outlines are still clear many years later, and it’s the thing we’re missing right now.

Take California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, drafted in 1960 to provide a coherent blueprint for building what has since become this country’s flagship public institution. As the Public Policy Institute for California put it in an illuminating study, the architects of the Master Plan had clear goals for expanding California’s college educated work force:

When the Master Plan was established in 1960, only 11 percent of working-age adults in California had a college degree. The Master Plan’s goals of access, affordability, and quality allowed for the top 12.5 percent of high school graduates to be admitted to a University of California campus and the top 33.3 percent of high school graduates to be admitted to a California State University campus. The Master Plan thereby both anticipated and provided for a large increase in college enrollment and the awarding of college degrees in California. It was understood that the state needed to provide funding to realize the enrollment increases, and until the past decade or two, the state was, for the most part, willing and able to do so.

I emphasize that last sentence because it really is the crucial point here; the people who wrote the Master Plan simply took it for granted that educating the state’s citizens was the cost of being a first world nation, and they were willing to pay the cost to do so. They took the long view on their investment in California’s students, a long view that has been pretty well born out: a state filled with well educated workers will benefit at a broad social level as those educated workers go into the economy and create value. That’s not really controversial.

Where liberals in the 1960’s part company with today’s neoliberal consensus, however, is the belief that government should pay for these things when students cannot. In the 1960’s, as the Legislative Analysts Office puts it, the Master Plan called

“for student fees to cover the operating costs of noninstructional services (such as laboratories, student activities, and athletics). Financial aid would be made available for students who could not afford these costs, and for all California residents direct instructional costs (such as faculty salaries) would be paid by the state. Ancillary services (such as parking and dormitories) would be self–supporting.”

In plain English, the upshot was that while student paid enough in fees to cover “noninstructional services,” the state was on the hook for things like, you know, teaching, since it’s manifestly the case that not all students can afford such things. This was deemed to be a good investment, and it has been.

Today, on the other hand, the model pretty clearly understands students as subsidized customers, and as the subsidies drop, the product moves out of reach. Instead of simply paying for “non-instructional services,” students are expected to make up, out of their own pocket, whatever shortfall there is between the University’s budget and the state’s funding. Instead of an investment in the future, in other words, students have now become the customers. And instead of committing to provide an education to everyone who is academically eligible, “public” universities are becoming public in name only, behaving more and more like publicly subsidized corporations. But this changes the entire fiscal structure — and decision making logic — of a university like the UC; instead of educating citizens for the public good, universities make decisions based on where the money is to be found.

And so we have online classes, a development which only an administrator — or a student who wants the accreditation and doesn’t care about the education — could love. And which is why, by the way, you see schools like the UC taking the lead on online education; universities with endowments and economic stability aren’t so desperately insolvent that they’ll jump into the pool before they know whether there’s any water. And because the UC is not only at the mercy of Sacramento but is actually run by the governor’s appointees, they’re going to be the quickest to strip mine what’s left in the system, to “do more with less” by finding ways to make people keep paying for inferior product. But at most, the expansion of online education will simply allow an upper crust public university like the UC to stem some of the bleeding; not only is the scale of the savings to be had much too small to make up the budget shortfalls from the state — which will continue to be made up by rising fees — normalizing online education will do less than nothing for the next tier down. An online course from Berkeley or UCLA, after all, at least has the name; an online course from Marshall University does not, and will just lose local students to the more prestigious schools.


[1] As Ed at ginandtacos puts it, “when free market enthusiasts attempt to sell an idea with the promise that it will “democratize” something – bringing broader access to a previously exclusive good, service, or market – two things are about to happen. A small group of people are going to get obscenely wealthy, and they are likely to do so as a direct result of a much larger and less exclusive group of people getting bent over and unceremoniously screwed.”

[2] Again, Ed puts it well, “This kind of bluster is par for the course for the magazine that spent the nineties promising us that the unregulated market would bring us to economic nirvana. Life was going to be one long technogasm laden with “innovation” and unfettered prosperity for all; we would all be wealthy once The Internets let every Tom, Dick, and Harry buy mutual funds.”