Monday, November 29, 2010

UCLA’s Neoliberal Path

Neoliberalism is centered on the belief that free markets can regulate themselves, and so it is unnecessary to have large government programs and the taxes needed to support public education, universal healthcare, and environmental standards. Moreover, neoliberal institutions like the IMF and the World Bank believe that the best way to help a developing country is to impose austerity measures and replace the public sector with private businesses. In the case of universities, the neoliberal formula involves weaning oneself from public finances by increasing tuition, cutting unprofitable programs, and increasing the number of “self-sustaining” units. Of course, this strategy often fails in the end because it turns out that the privatized self-sustaining areas rely on public subsidies in order to remain solvent.

To see this neoliberal agenda in action, we can look at the recently announced plan to restructure UCLA. As Chancellor Gene Block has argued, the only way that the campus can overcome unstable state funding is if it reduces academic costs, increases nonresident enrollment, secures more philanthropic donations, offers more self-supporting degree programs, and expands intellectual property. Looking at each one of these five elements, we will see that not only do they represent the privatization of a public institution, but they are all destined to contribute to a reduction of financial health for the institution.

Restructuring Majors
In the case of reducing academic costs, the strategy relies on lowering the number of requirements in each major. Two of the results of this tactic called “challenge 45” is that the size of upper-division courses has increased and students have been forced to scramble to find courses outside of their majors in order to graduate on time. Moreover, one strategy to help reduce the demand for high enrollment classes is a new expanded summer program that motivates students to pay extra for classes they need. It is important to note that these summer classes are squeezed into a time period that is half the length of a regular quarter session and a third of the time of a semester course. In short, students are being told to pay more for less.

Not only are students having to pay extra to attend during the summer, but the university is also considering allowing students the option of taking an “e-section” of a high-demand course. According to a Daily Bruin article, “The students will receive lecture instruction online via Bruincast and attend a live discussion once a week.” Once again, students will be asked to accept an inferior mode of education in order to move through the system in an efficient manner, and there appears to be little attempt here to monitor the value of the educational experience or the role of faculty in determining how courses are delivered.

While the goal of these instructional changes is clearly to save money, the people putting this together admit that they have no idea how much funds these new programs will save. According to Robert Cox, manager for institutional research in the UCLA Office of Analysis and Information Management: “Everyone can agree that there are ways in which these things can lead to savings, but no one has put a ticket on it to show how much you can save . . . At the policy level, you can see where the policy would tend to take the result, but figuring out how it can fill the hole in the budget, you can’t do it; the issues are too complex.” This analysis does not make one feel very confident about the ability of UCLA to predict and manage its own budget.

Globalizing Enrollments
If we now look at the second part of the UCLA plan, the increase in nonresident students, we do see a source for revenue, but once again, this strategy does not address several academic and financial issues. For instance, someone has to ask how much money is UCLA spending on trying to recruit international students. While the cost is never discussed, we have learned from a Daily Bruin article that one way that the campus plans to double its nonresident student population is by changing the way it markets itself to the outside world, and the goals for this program are quite ambitious: “Boosting the nonresident population to about 5,000 will mean adding about 10,000 more seats to classes. It will mean more students seeking appointments in the Ashe Center at the height of flu season, more students in need of counseling or psychological services and more students in need of on-campus housing.” While I have argued that public universities like UCLA should expand enrollments in order to reduce the need for tuition increases, I have also argued that schools have to hire more faculty members and make sure that the new funds are directed towards undergraduates; however, so far at UCLA, we have seen a reduction of people teaching undergraduate courses, and so it is unclear who will teach the additional students.

In fact, UCLA now only has three lecturers who teach English as a Second Language (ESL), and yet, we are expected to accommodate a growing number of international students who need language help in order to succeed in their courses. Ironically, the ESL lecturers are currently supposed to be self-sustaining because they need to raise money through summer courses in order to support the classes they teach during the year. This unsustainable situation is yet another example of how the myth of self-sustaining units never really holds true.

Hoping on Gifts
While UCLA attempts to reduce instructional costs and increase the number of international students at the same time, it also wants to increase its endowment by having UCLA students call former students and ask for increased giving. It should be pointed out that UCLA is already the most successful public university in the country when it comes to private giving, and it thus unclear how it will be able to increase its revenue during these difficult financial times. Also, 95% of the UCLA gifts can only be used for very specific purposes, like endowed chairs and new buildings, and so they rarely contribute to the general fund of the campus. In fact, many gifts end up losing money because they do not pay for the full cost of the programs they seed and support.

While the people in charge of the endowment campaign stress that they want to convince alumni to give more because of the great value of a UCLA education, many of the current proposals to reshape the university threaten to undermine both its quality and reputation. For example, the move to enhance the number of self-sustaining units includes a major expansion in extension programs, which are often taught by non-UCLA faculty and cater to non-UCLA students. Moreover, these programs are being pitched as ways of training students to fulfill present corporate needs: “Programs would be offered according to what employers want in new hires, among other factors.” Perhaps these extension programs will bring in some more funds, but we have to ask if the university wants to define itself by what some outside company thinks it currently needs.

Privatizing the Public
Of course, UCLA is already leading the way to privatization by catering to the Anderson Business School's desire to leave behind state funding and move to a self-sufficient funding model. Although, the UCLA faculty senate has voted against this move, it is clear that the leaders of the business school are going ahead with their plans, and it appears that Chancellor Block supports this change, which will not only require increasing tuition to over $55,000 but could also result in the general UCLA campus losing needed state funding. It is also unclear what the school will do when pension costs increases dramatically in the near future.

Intellectual Property Values
Perhaps the university is hoping that cashing in on intellectual property rights will help UCLA to resolve the difficult task of increasing revenue while decreasing costs, yet, it should be stressed that it has been very difficult for schools to profit from their inventions and knowledge production. It turns out that it is very costly to do research, and many research projects never go to market. In other words, universities keep on looking outside of the classroom to find a source of income, but the fact of the matter is that education is not only what schools are supposed to do, but it is also what they do best and most cost-efficiently. This is not to say that universities should not continue to pursue ground-breaking research, but they should realize where their money comes from and how much it costs to fund expensive labs with high-tech equipment and an army of bureaucrats, lawyers, office managers, and graduate students. Currently, undergraduate students subsidize virtually everything universities do, and it is time for schools to recognize this by making sure that vital undergraduate programs are supported.


  1. maybe you can get this published in the opinion section of the daily bruin

  2. This is an excellent article. I was just going to say the same thing as ali about trying to publish it in the Daily Bruin. Students need to understand what the specific ideological project is we're facing with the chancellor's new 5-step program for the "self-sufficiency" of UCLA. Great post.

  3. and the Huffington Post and the LA and NY Times...

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