A university president counting the pennies

There is an interesting report in the US media about the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Before I go into the details, let me just say that this is a well-known and highly respected American public university. It has over 40,000 students, and so by our standards on this side of the Atlantic we’d consider it pretty big. In global ranking terms, the Times Higher league table has it at number 33, which places it above any Irish or Scottish university.

So, what is the story? Well, its new president has been telling the media that for the first few months of his tenure he has only had time for one thing, ‘counting the pennies’. Just as he took up his post the state cut funding dramatically, and what is more, it has only managed so far to cough up around 3 per cent of what it had promised in the first place. The university is in crisis, and the president is cutting costs wherever he can and is contemplating a rise in tuition fees.

All that sounds very familiar, confirming again that our problems are not unique and are also being experienced in many different countries. But then again, look at this. The state funding of the University of Illinois only accounts for 17 per cent of its revenues, and yet the sum in question, at $390 million, is more than what any Irish university receives from the state. So what is the university’s total budget? It’s $4.7 billion, that’s what it is. That’s more than twice what the entire Irish university sector spends. I haven’t yet worked out the Scottish figures, but I expect there is also a mighty gap.

The two stories, read from over here, are about the insecurity of state funding during these turbulent times (and that’s the same over here), and the extraordinary resource gap between the universities with whom we want and need to compete and our own institutions. If anyone is serious about having a smart economy, we need to do things very differently indeed. And we don’t have much time.

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7 Comments on “A university president counting the pennies”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    The University of Kentucky, where I have just spent a very productive year, has about 28000 students I think. Its operating budget is $2.5 billion, somewhat less per capita that UIUC. Gross state support accounts for 12.5% of that, a number that has been falling steadily.
    In-state tuition is c. $8k, about 3 times what Irish students will be paying, in what is one of the poorest states of the US. Yet it is generally not believed to be a barrier to access.

    • Fred Says:

      Kevin are you still in UKY?
      I would say the same example but I agree with you! US institutions are generally benefited from general donations, alumni donations (I belong to UKY’s) as well as industry support.

      • kevin denny Says:

        Here for a few more weeks only alas. I don’t know how much alumni support accounts for, but my guess is that its much much more than in Ireland or the UK. Oxford has been good about tapping alumni but I think thats unusual.
        But then people seem to identify with their college much more in the US and college sport is part of it, in UK’s case the basketball team. Go Wildcats!

  2. jfryar Says:

    Firstly, I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas and all the turkey has finally been eaten.

    Secondly, I’m always a little confused as to what ‘compete’ means when that word is applied to universities. Does it mean ‘compete’ for students? Does it mean ‘compete’ for funding? Does it mean ‘compete’ for talent? And how does one measure the ‘competitiveness’ of a university? Would Irish universities appear higher on ‘league tables’ because they offered medical degrees and had ‘teaching hospitals’ attached to them?

    I think small countries like Ireland, and some of the Asian countries such as Malaysia, can compete with the ‘big boys’ if they specialise. Some of the (former?) CSETs in Ireland, like DCU’s BDI, are certainly ‘world-class’ research institutes. Where Ireland at the moment can’t compete with the US is in the creation of spin-off companies. But I think that requires more a change of mindset than a massive injection of cash.

    If it means ‘competing for talent’ that can come about with the creation of specialist institutes. If it means ‘attracting students’ then that can come about with employer reputation. And so on …

    I really think the issue revolves around a point made by Colum in a different post – Ireland needs to decide the function of its universities rather than have them attempt to be all things to all people. Only when that’s sorted will we be in a position to define what we mean by ‘competiveness’ in an educational environment.


  3. [...] I think this discussion had its roots in this blog post by von Prondzynski here about financial issues for a university in the US. The university in question is a) more highly ranked than any university in Ireland b) [...]

  4. Vincent Says:

    In fairness your numbers are a bit opaque. Yes they have that number of students and yes they probably have that amount of cash. But the students are divided amongst day evening night and distance classes. While the moneys have a huge component of Sports. Something that doesn’t, leastwise it shouldn’t factor in to any calculation made here.
    There they really try to get the most out of the physical infrastructure, here, it’s been a new thing where a room was in use for a full eight never mind fifteen hours.

  5. Al Says:

    Is there an implicit criticism of the Croke park agreement here? Possibly deservedly so.?
    Was it or is it within the long term achievability for Uni heads to reach a funding model less captive than the current one.
    Government may need to be seen as both friend and enemy at the same time, and Uni’s may need to diverge from the smart economy line, to become smarter or less smart depending on the circumstances…


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