Higher Education Expands Worldwide, but Contracts in California?

During the last nine years, I squeezed guest teaching gigs in Tanzania, Germany, and China in-between my duties at Chico State. Each time I do this, I am impressed by the vibrancy of growing university systems abroad and the rapid expansion of higher education opportunities. Each country is pushing more of their students into post-secondary institutions. Indeed, there is a Europe-wide goal of having at least 40% of all 30-34 year olds graduating at the level of a US Bachelor’s degree by 2020 (The US and California have been stuck at 25-30% since about 1970). Each place I’ve visited also seeks to “internationalize” their curricula, by which they mean sending students abroad, receiving faculty and students from other countries, and offering classes in English. This is all very exciting for someone coming from moribund California where internationalization is viewed primarily in terms of “revenue generation,” in other words, a way to soak outsiders for the cost of running our universities, and not necessarily a value for its own sake.

Inevitably the rapid growth I saw abroad resulted in some nutty stuff—and you hear about it. My German colleagues complained about the pains of uncoordinated rapid growth, and the fact that expanding student bodies, do not keep up with faculty hires. Lack of coordination in student loan disbursements in Tanzania resulted in a student strike, tear gas in my house, and the mid-semester cancellation of my classes. In China and Germany, students bragged that their English skills are better than the faculty—as indeed they are as a result of improved foreign language instruction during the 1990s when they were in primary school. And the university I visited in China had a massive new library at the entrance to the university which I fear will become a digital-age white elephant.

In all three countries, students complained about the high cost of student fees/tuition, just like they do in California. It is just that the magnitude is different. In Germany students protested recent imposition of tuition at public universities which were briefly set at 500 Euros per semester (about $633), before being eliminated in most states. Perhaps the nuttiest thing occurred at a rapidly internationalizing university when I presented a class to one student (it was a great class!), due to a scheduling mistake on the part of a host overeager to offer an English language sociology course.

But then it is always back to California where we have real complaints. The tuition bills at CSU are about $7000 per year, $13,200 per year at UC, and even the Community Colleges run about $2000 for a full-time 30 unit load. California has declining student enrolments, faculty numbers which decline faster, and curricular offerings which go down even more quickly. Many public universities in the United States cut class times via various furlough programs. The United States (led by California) in the past led college completion rates for adults aged 30-34—but in recent years was surpassed by countries like Korea, Canada, Japan, and Ireland. This will put the United States at a competitive disadvantage in future world labor markets for decades to come, a fact that logically will lead to yet further decline.

On top of everything else, instead of encouraging the internationalization other countries seek, the United States discourages enrolment by international students with complicated student visa requirements and a reluctance to recognize foreign degrees. For example, my own students at the Chico State are discouraged by risk management concerns from CSU headquarters in Long Beach that ultimately drive up students costs for study abroad—with the result that our own efforts to “internationalize” our student bodies are restrained.  And woldn’t it be nice if our students could complain that their Spanish (or Chinese) skills are better than their faculty!  Somehow, this is not in the cards in a state where foreign language instruction is being cut back.  (Still there is some good news for CSU headquarters in Long Beach: we don’t need a new massive library like I saw in China, though it would be nice if Chico State’s browsing collections were maintained, and the supply of books—print or e-copies— kept up with the book reviews!)

In other words, I have seen the consequences of both rapid growth and institutional contraction. I’ll take the chaotic growth of Germany, China, and Tanzania over the institutional stagnation in California any day.

Ultimately, the rapid growth of public education abroad happens because governments in other countries value higher education in ways that California no longer does. And most importantly, taxpayers abroad are willing to pay for higher education. Hidden behind the student protests I observed in Tanzania and Germany, was a shared belief that the general public benefits from a well-educated population. The protests appealed effectively, albeit sometimes clumsily, to this value. This value was of course shared by Californians in the past—thus the rapid expansion of California’s higher education system by the grandparents of my students in the decades after World War II. Such benefits, of course, were reaped by me and my fellow baby boomers in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The question for today’s baby boomers is whether they will be able to return the favor by supporting our own children in a way that the rest of the world does.