Go back

A creaking system

Prominent figures are concerned about the increasing reliance of US public universities on student fees, reports Rebecca Trager.

In 2005, Norman Augustine, the former chairman and chief executive of Lockheed Martin, chaired a report for the US National Academies of Sciences called Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which warned that US preeminence in science and technology had begun to erode and would slip further unless more was spent on education and R&D.

On 19 September, Augustine told a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on US competitiveness that since then, the plight of the country’s public universities—which are estimated to conduct two-thirds of the nation’s academic research and produce about 70 per cent of its learned professionals, including scientists and engineers—has only worsened.

“In three decades, state financial support of higher education as a fraction of personal income has, on average, declined by 71 per cent,” he said. Across America, tuition costs and fees at public universities have risen by an average of 85 per cent in the past decade, Augustine said, even after financial aid provided by universities for students is taken into account.

Furthermore, he said, faculty members’ salaries have fallen by an average of 1.2 per cent during the past year, not accounting for inflation. Anecdotal reports indicate that faculty layoffs are increasing, especially among junior members, as teaching loads are growing.

The drop in public money stems from the recession and consequent decline in tax revenues, particularly at the state level. The proportion of public university operating expenses funded by state governments is at its lowest level for a quarter of a century, said Augustine.

His testimony adds to rising concern about the state of US public universities. Also in September, the National Science Board, the National Science Foundation’s governing body, concluded that state funding per student at America’s 101 major public research universities dropped by an average of 20 per cent between 2002 and 2010.

A few months earlier, a report from the US National Research Council had warned that public research universities would seriously deteriorate without action by federal and state governments and business to ensure adequate, stable funding in the next decade. It cited data showing that federal spending on university research has been unsteady and declining in real terms, while state support for public research universities dropped 25-50 per cent.

According to one Nobel laureate, one reason for tuition hikes is that students at public universities are being milked to top up research budgets, because grants do not cover the full cost of the work.

Many of the top research universities belonging to the Association of American Universities spend about $5,000 per undergraduate each year to subsidise research, according to Carl Wieman, winner of the physics prize in 2001 and a former science adviser to President Obama, now based at the University of British Columbia. At least 50 per cent of this goes to cover unreimbursed costs associated with federally funded research grants, he testified at the Senate hearing.

Wieman said university deans face a choice between turning down research grants because of the expenses attached or trying to make up the money from other sources, most likely tuition increases. “The agencies don’t want to talk about this, the universities don’t want to talk about this,” Wieman said. “But this money to support research is coming directly out of tuition.”

AAU spokesman Barry Toiv questions Wieman’s calculations and conclusions. “We have no reason to think it’s accurate,” he told Research Europe, noting that the AAU hasn’t attempted such calculations.

Toiv says that falling state investment in public higher education is the main cause of rising tuition fees. But he agrees that unreimbursed indirect costs from research grants “create a challenge” for all universities, public and private.

Some observers argue that fee rises are effectively privatising public universities, and that the US should be considering the role of such institutions. For example, Augustine said that, while faculty salaries have fallen, football coaches at major colleges are paid an average of $1.47 million a year, 55 per cent more than six years ago.

This is not necessarily a bad investment: an analysis issued by the US National Bureau of Economic Research in June estimated that five extra wins for a university’s football team brings in $682,000 extra in donations.

Nevertheless, America’s global competitors are seeking to capitalise on the difficulties facing research staff at US universities. Augustine pointed to one university abroad that recently hired 14 senior faculty members, of which 13 came from the US.

More to say? Email comment@ResearchResearch.com