Back in late 2016, I posted a review of a new book about higher education in California in the 1960s. At the time it seemed relevant to Australia’s own problems with growing demand for access, funding pressures and system-level reform. But the Australian tertiary system has not seen any comprehensive reform, then or since. So here I’m republishing my book review, with some minor updates…

“Simon Marginson’s latest book is based on the Clark Kerr lectures he gave at Berkeley in late 2014. The Dream is Over: The Crisis of Clark Kerr’s California Idea of Higher Education is a powerful work of scholarship and synthesis. It tracks historical shifts in American politics, society, and economy; the rise of global science; and the worldwide effects of global university rankings. It has wide implications for policy makers, within and beyond the US.

The book traces how California’s 1960 Master Plan for higher education has fared over half a century and also considers the legacy of its chief architect, Clark Kerr. The Plan is set in its historical context of economic growth and social optimism. The vision it promoted of a more “meritocratic” society, Marginson notes, was based on a potent blend of

two narratives that still in one form or another shape expectations of higher education all over the world: education as human capital, as economic progress, and education as equality of opportunity, as social justice.

Simon Marginson, 2016

Under the Plan the elite, research-intensive University would recruit from the top eighth of Californian school leavers, the four-year colleges would draw from the top third, and the two-year community colleges would provide open access to the rest.

Mission accomplishments

The Plan’s basic structure remains; but what has its system achieved? Marginson finds that the “goal of excellence has been realized more completely than that of access”. The University of California has gone from strength to strength. But with state finances faltering post-2008, the two-year colleges no longer offer universal access and their credential power in labour markets is weak. As well, the transfer functions to higher credentials are limited: as a system, the pyramid is too steep.

Drawing on the work of Thomas Piketty and others, Marginson concludes that with the rise of an anti-state, anti-tax political economy, US settings have become more conducive to “plutocracy”. Comparing Piketty’s now famous “one percent” across nations he observes that the share of all earnings received by the top 1% of citizens in the US in 2010 was 20%, compared with 15% in the UK, 12% in Canada, 10% in Europe and 10% in Australia.

Thus mass access to higher education created real social opportunity only under earlier US conditions of higher growth, higher taxation and funded expansion. Today, elite US credentials offer sheltered paths to elite US careers. As merit is reframed as cultural capital, the human capital theory that supported California’s original Plan is exposed as “a myth”. Thus the “1960s dream is over”.

At the end of the book and elsewhere, Marginson suggests how the Master Plan might be renewed. His proposals include an expansion of degree places at the state level, and the introduction of Australian HELP-type student loans at the US federal level to finance them. (A big question here is whether ever more upfront degree-level study still makes sense as a post-secondary education pathway into the workforce, as knowledge work requires lifelong learning and micro-credentials gain wider currency.)

Global influences

Meanwhile, within and beyond the US, global trends and rankings have reframed Clark Kerr’s famous “multiversity” as the “idea of a global multiversity”. Yet for most systems, Marginson argues, this is a model that “not all can perform, not all should perform, and none can finance”. The worldwide pursuit of “world class” status skews investment as governments fail to focus enough on national needs, or to build on national traditions.

The non-university elements of Clark Kerr’s own more grounded system perspective have been lost in translation. Marginson notes the great irony: Kerr’s most famous work, The Uses of the University, framed in its time as a reality check on the abstract appeal of John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, has become an ideal type.

Multi-faceted Clark Kerr

The book paints a vivid portrait of Clark Kerr as a university president, scholar and system architect. As president he was a skilled mediator, promoting “an inclusive, many-sided idea of the university”. As a scholar his Godkin lectures at Harvard in 1963, the basis for The Uses of the University, are “unparalleled in clarity of exposition and insight into modern higher education.”

As a system architect Kerr was hard-headed about the design dilemmas and trade-offs inherent in the sector’s divergent aims and interests. The expected growth in enrolments could not be funded if too many colleges sought research university status. And the University of California had its own prime position to protect. As Kerr put it (wearing his president hat):

Clark Kerr reflects on California’s Master Plan. Cover from Time Magazine October 17, 1960

Lessons for Australian tertiary education

The book has relevance well beyond the US. Any nation facing growing demand for tertiary education, particularly those with flagging economies or fiscal constraints or both, must face some version of the design dilemmas that the Master Plan faced back then, and grapples with today, 60 years on.

Over the last few decades Australian tertiary education has taken a different path from that seen in California. Under the Dawkins reforms at the end of the 1980s, many tertiary institutions “went university” in their own right, or merged with an existing university.

At that time, some thought that a Californian-style “network” university or polytechnic system might emerge from the institutional amalgamations in some Australian states. But it never happened. Unlike California, our state governments had no strong funding role to play. They had little say in reshaping the system under the Dawkins process, or in supervising it since. They could not, for example, balance the volume of student places for diplomas versus degrees if institutions favoured the latter.

In terms of financing, the states play a larger role in vocational than in higher education in Australia. Today, 30 years after the Dawkins reforms, higher education and vocational education and training are not well linked in Australia. There have been resource disparities between the sectors, and poor state-federal co-ordination of financing.

In 2014, a federal government attempt to reform a higher education sector facing rapid expansion and fiscal constraint tried to do too much without enough detailed planning. It sought direct funding cuts and deregulation of domestic student fees, backed by HELP loans. This followed the introduction of “demand-driven” funding of domestic student places after the 2008 Bradley Review. And the combination of funding cuts and fee hikes echoed similar moves in the UK in 2012.

As a plan for the sector’s future, full fee deregulation didn’t gain political support in Australia, despite university sector support for it. Later changes, most notably a funding freeze for university sector funding from the start of 2018, held down public costs without reforming the underlying system.

The latest effort in 2020 has succeeded in legislating changes to the Australian funding model for degree-level study, to finance growing domestic demand. It introduces a wider range of pricing (some far lower, others far higher) designed to encourage students to study more “job-relevant” courses. But experts see flaws in the new model also.

Meanwhile, the wider tertiary landscape has shifted a lot in the past decade. There are many more options for low cost online study and a more dynamic “mixed local and global economy” of higher learning. Seen through the lens of its current policy and funding settings, Australian higher education looks relatively undifferentiated. But policy makers will have to track and address the kinds of threats and opportunities that analysts have flagged for years, as in this UK outlook from 2012:

Source: Tom Kennie and Ilfryn Price
Reproduced in Sharrock, Organising, Leading and Managing 21st Century Universities in Visions for Australian Tertiary Education, MCSHE 2017

In a future of lifelong learning and global markets for higher learning, changing work skills and growing recognition of micro-credentials, Australia’s post-secondary “ecosystem” is in flux. Perhaps our next round of serious reform should consider the question Marginson put to his Californian audience back in 2014: “What would Clark Kerr do?”.

Part of the answer must be: “Kerr would keep a clear focus on the system as a whole. He would highlight shifts and trends to set any suite of reforms in its wider social, economic and global context. He would recognise that the system has to serve an array of public purposes: equity of access for students, quality of programs in teaching and research, and diverse communities to engage and partner with. He would accept that funding constraints imply policy design trade-offs to keep the system sustainable. And he would make sure that the aims and needs of each part of the system remained visible to those making complex reform decisions.”

Further reading

Geoff Sharrock, 2013, Book review: The Dawkins Revolution, 25 Years On

Simon Marginson, 2016, Master Plan 2.0: still hope for the California dream

Geoff Sharrock, 2016, Book review: What can we learn from the California system?

Peter Noonan, 2016, Why we need an independent authority to oversee tertiary education

Gavin Moodie, 2018, Four ideas for reforming higher education policy-making

Alex Usher, 2018, What makes Canada unique in post-secondary education

Geoff Sharrock, 2018, Six things Labor’s review of tertiary education should consider

Robin Shreeve, 2018, A new national set of priorities for VET would make great social and economic sense

Ruth Schubert and Leo Goedegebuure, 2018, The vocational education sector needs a plan and action, not more talk

Peter Hurley, Peter Dawkins and Peter Noonan, 2019, Fewer Australians will have uni or TAFE skills if governments don’t reform tertiary education

Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education panel session, 2019, Access to what?

Geoff Sharrock, 2020, Higher education: survive the tempest, plan for more sea-change

Ellen Hazelkorn, 2020, Have too many people been left behind, post-secondary?

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