Posted tagged ‘University of California’

Elearning in times of crisis

April 12, 2011

One of the most impressive public university systems in the world, the University of California, is under extreme financial pressure in the light of major funding cuts imposed by the state. There are major fears that the university, whose constituent institutions include such global leaders as UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara, will have to implement further very drastic cuts and job losses.

One initiative currently being contemplated as a possible contribution to alleviating the crisis is a plan to put a number of programmes online and charge students for taking them – including students not registered with the university. However, in order to do this the university needs to invest to cover the start-up and development costs, and these are estimated to come to up to $7 million. Initially the university declared that this would be raised from private donations, but so far it has only been able to raise $750,000 – and so it has now decided to fund the rest by way of a bank loan. But if it does this, then the overall financial and business plan for the initiative will change fundamentally, and the university also will have to work out how to avoid the significant losses that other universities have suffered with similar initiatives.

How all this will play out remains to be seen. But it might be a good idea for every university president across the world to have a poster in their office reminding them that while online learning is a good idea and can make a very substantial pedagogical contribution, it is never an easy source of profits, and should never be planned with that end in view. Setting up a high quality elearning programme costs a lot of money, and needs to. Running something that is not high quality should not be contemplated at all.

This is not to say that the University ofd California should not be planning an elearning initiative. But it should not do this in order to cover a financial shortfall. To do so is very risky indeed.

The high risk resulting from university expansion when funding is cut

April 19, 2010

As we have noted here before, universities in Ireland are currently being encouraged to increase student numbers while they simultaneously suffer significant reductions in resources. The reduction, it has to be remembered, is right now principally affecting the number of academic faculty who can be recruited or retained: all universities must show a reduction in staff headcount of at least 6 per cent over two years under the so-called ‘Employment Control Framework‘.

However, there is an important lesson to be learned from recent experiences in California, where the University of California system is now in serious difficulty. It is thought that the problems there are chiefly the result of the fact that the system has expanded significantly over the past decade, while the state’s funding for students has declined in real terms by about 50 per cent. The latter figure is, it might be noted, remarkably similar to the funding reduction per student in Ireland over the past ten years. The consequence has been that public funding only accounts for 69 per cent of the total cost of each student, and the resulting financial pressures are forcing the universities that form part of the system to increase their tuition fees dramatically. But this, as we know, is not an option open to the Irish institutions.

California is just one more piece of evidence to demonstrate that excellence is not cheap and cannot be easily secured during sudden funding cuts that are compensated for through other revenues. How exactly we can maintain a university sector in Ireland that can support national ambitions for a ‘smart economy’ while we strip it of resources is a question that nobody has answered, and which is not even being put emphatically enough. If this question is intended to be addressed by the higher education strategic review, then we need to hear the answer very soon indeed.