Despite the passage of Proposition 30 — which protected the UC from a $375 million funding cut — fiscal struggles have yet to disappear from the University’s agenda. While the most recent Board of Regents meeting lacked the usual heated topics of tuition hikes and wage cuts, it did discuss methods of financial sustainability — specifically, the potentially cost-cutting effects of an online education program. The new program is one of many efforts to improve efficiency and is largely advocated by Gov. Jerry Brown. As the governor attends more Regents meetings and begins challenging the University’s budgetary practices, he questions the very structure it stands upon.
According to Brown, the UC will continue to grapple with budgetary shortcomings if it does not acknowledge the fiscal realities of the state. He said the state cannot provide the 11.6 percent budget increase the university is currently requesting.
“Let’s start with the problem — the state is going to give 5 percent more; the university says it needs 11.6 percent,” Brown said. “If nothing else happens, the students will pay for that.”
Relying on students to fill what Brown calls a crucial “financial gap” is not a sustainable funding model. Instead, he proposes university officials find other means of increased efficiency rather than looking to the wallets of students.
“It would be good if UC could provide a good, solid education at an affordable cost,” Brown said. “Some of that could be online, some of that could be more instruction time, some of that could be changing the course structure … Some of that might be using the community colleges’ transfer program more.”
A few of these proposals are already under construction, as online education has become a major point of debate.
At last week’s Regents meeting, Student Regent Jonathan Stein voiced concerns that the program lacks the quality of a traditional university curriculum. Meanwhile, other Regents questioned the affordability and structure of online courses.
However, Brown is adamant that online education is one sure way the university can make a UC education more “available” to California students without driving up tuition costs.
He conceded that current online course offerings — costing $1400 to $2400 each — hold unrealistic price tags and should be made “a lot more affordable,” adding that the high enrollment levels facing the UC can only be fairly and inexpensively accommodated through an online program.
“There’s all these students knocking on the door and you’re never going to get them through the bricks and mortar,” Brown said. “See, with online, you can do that.”
The program’s current lack of affordability could be resolved by the high volumes of students that would be drawn in, according to Brown.
“If you have 50,000 students taking a course, the unit cost can be much lower,” Brown said. “See, that’s the idea — if you can get more students involved, the unit cost will go down.”
In explaining the plights — and respective solutions — that face the UC, Brown said university officials must keep realistic expectations of what the state can provide, and realize that the current fiscal gap of 6.6 percent cannot be filled by state funds.
“The money’s got to come from somewhere … Who are they going to extract it from?” Brown said. “You’re not going to get it from the state. The state has to give to poor people, it has to give to childcare — all the other things that the state does.”
In directing attention to the underfunded state budget, Brown also emphasized that UC campuses are not the only public institutions in a state of “crisis.”
“This is a not a UC Santa Barbara problem alone. This is not a UC systemwide problem alone,” Brown said. “The idea of free education is becoming less and less available and possible in the West.”
With the state strapped and voters increasingly unwilling to sub- sidize higher education, Brown said the distribution of UC funding must take on fundamental changes from the inside out, restructuring itself entirely.
“What we’re saying is — we’re giving you what we get as an aggregate. They said, well that’s not enough … They want to pay the teachers, who are getting pay raises,” Brown said. “If they don’t get another pay raise, that will hold the tuition down … Now, they don’t want that. But [the state] cut my pay raise. Gov. Schwarzenegger made $205,000; I make $165,000 — that’s a 23 percent cut.”
In light of all his suggestions, and even as he sat two seats away from the now-resigned UC President Mark Yudof at the last Regents meeting, Brown said he leaves the problems of UC funding up to the university’s core administrators and executives. “I’m not giving the answer but I’m posing the question,” Brown said. “If no different and better method is found, tuition will ultimately rise.”
A version of this article appeared on page 3 of January 23rd, 2013′s print edition of the Nexus.