The University of California needs immediate, creative solutions to current budget crises if it wishes to maintain its status among the nation’s top research universities, UC officials said Tuesday at the Board of Regents’ meeting.

UC Senior Vice President Bruce Darling and Vice President of Budget Lawrence Hershman presented an updated report to the Committee on Finance detailing “quality indicators” of the UC system. By using a color chart ranging from a positive green review to a negative red review, Darling and Hershman described the current state of such factors as student fees and faculty salary while also noting the increasing importance of higher education to California’s citizens. According to the report, many of the indicators show decreased quality due to inadequate state funding.

State budget cuts to the UC since the early 1990s have created an annual $2,520 per-student gap between the UC’s operating budget and the cost for it to operate most effectively, the report said. Additionally, UC enrollment has grown by 19 percent since 2001, while state funding has been cut by 15 percent. With California expecting to see a 50 percent population increase by 2040, the downward trend in funding for higher education will hurt the state’s future generations, Darling said. Like the Californians of today, Darling said future residents will need a college education for their jobs more so than in previous decades.

“Higher education is a more important pathway for upward social mobility than ever before,” Darling said.

Budget shortfalls have caused student fees to rise and faculty salaries to be cut – something which will affect the competitive edge of the UC, Hershman said. On average, UC faculty salaries are 22 percent lower than those of private schools, he said. However, Hershman said, UC student fees are still lower than private school tuition and most other public universities.

Also, financial aid to students, which received a “green” review, has increased and helps support students pay for the rising costs of education, Hershman said. According to a chart in the report, financial aid in the form of fellowships, scholarships and grants has increased from about $600 million in 2000 to about $1.1 billion in 2005.

However, students from the University of California Students Association – a student lobby group – as well as Regent Judith Hopkinson, questioned the success of the financial aid program. Felicia Cruz, UCSA chair and UCSB Associated Students vice president of statewide affairs, said many students including herself could barely afford UC tuition, even with the offered financial aid. Hopkinson said she was confused as to why financial aid did not receive a “yellow” ranking. She said that while the amount of money budgeted toward the program has increased, the increase over the years as shown by percentage was not nearly as significant.

Another quality indicator that was given a “red” signal by Darling and Hershman was of the student-faculty ratio on campuses. On some, the ratio is as high as 20 students to every faculty member. Hershman said the numbers were disappointing compared to the regents’ goal of 17.6 students per faculty member.

“It’s no great honor [to have that ratio],” Hershman said.

Besides the number of faculty members, Hershman said the regents should be concerned with the amount of space and quality of buildings on campus. Although private funds are able to pay for many buildings that are direly needed by growing campuses, state cuts could prevent administrators from maintaining or updating them.

“We cannot continue to build buildings and not maintain them,” he said.

To prevent further slippage of quality in the UC system, Hershman said state funding needs to be reinvested in its schools and alternative means of financing should be explored. Although the recent UC fiscal compact with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has helped the UC’s situation somewhat, Hershman said it mostly “stops the bleeding” and will not return UC to a completely healthy financial status.