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Ara Shirinian: California budget revision would compromise quality of UC education

(Yanna Lee/Daily Bruin)

By Ara Shirinian

May 19, 2015 12:00 a.m.

If the secret to good magic is misdirection, then Gov. Jerry Brown might soon be the next David Copperfield.

On Thursday, Brown and University of California President Janet Napolitano announced a budget and tuition agreement as part of California’s May budget revision that will freeze tuition for the next two years for residents. This is possible because of a 4 percent base budget increase in state contributions for the next four years and a one-time payment of $436 million over three years to the UC’s pension fund. In return, Napolitano agreed to several mandates for the UC, including a smaller pension cap, the creation of pathways for three-year degrees, a stronger commitment to a one-third ratio of transfer students, a bigger push for online education and an increase in nonresident supplemental tuition of up to 8 percent.

The excitement about the tuition freeze is understandable, but the agreement between Brown and Napolitano is not as beneficial to the UC as some have made it out to be. The tuition freeze is indeed good news, but the UC is getting the short end of the stick in the negotiations as the mandated changes are going to create problems down the line, and we as students shouldn’t take the bait.

One of Brown’s longstanding goals that managed to make it into the agreement is a clearer path toward an increased reliance on online education. This is one more step in a long line of changes that have cut costs at the expense of less personal education that started with increasing class sizes.

The UC has been working to increase its online presence for a while under guidance from Brown, but the system has yet to be found effective. That alone is enough to question if it’s worth spending even more money on online education, but it’s certainly not the only problem. Without any real interaction, it can be hard for professors to gauge how students are handling the material and modify the course accordingly.

The jump to more online education might seem reasonable now, but only because we are used to large class sizes where interaction with instructors is rare to begin with. According to the 2015 UC budget summary, the student-to-faculty ratio over the last several years has hovered around 21:1, well above the 18:1 ratio of the early 90’s or the 18.7:1 target ratio of the University.

This creates a slippery slope that might end in a significant loss of interaction between students and professors. We should not be continuing the trend and jumping from large classes to online classes; we should be striving for lower class sizes. As it stands, the agreement is pushing the UC in the wrong direction and is not worth what we are receiving in return.

Additionally, the reduction in maximum employee pensions from $265,000 to $117,020 is part of an ongoing trend of reducing employee payouts. According to the 2015 UC budget summary, faculty salaries in the late ’90s were on par with salaries at competing institutions, but have since declined to 12 percent below market value in 2013. The gap is only expected to grow in the coming years.

Declining employee benefits is a relatively new phenomenon, so it’s difficult to quantify what it will mean for education quality, but continuing the trend of making the UC less competitive can only repel future talent.

The common factor in the mandates is that they are all permanent changes that will affect the UC for years to come and were essentially traded in exchange for a Band-Aid solution. While the changes might seem small, they are all part of larger systematic modifications that have been taking place over decades and will continue to add up until the quality of education suffers.

Brown has tried to justify this by turning the narrative against the UC. He has done this mostly by grieving over administrative salaries, but his claims are mostly exaggerated and keep the discussion turned away from the biggest gap in the University’s funding: state contributions.

In the mid-’70s and early ’80s, higher education comprised about 15 percent of the state’s general fund, but has since dropped to less than 12.5 percent.

That 2.5 percent difference translates to more than $3 billion dollars in additional higher education funding. A good portion of that funding would go the the UC and allow for a higher quality education and lower tuition.

Instead, Brown is trying to solve the problem by cutting the quality of education, and we have thus far remained complicit by viewing the deal as a success.

Students have started to forget a truth we once knew well, that universities provide more than just degrees; they help maintain a well-rounded and forward-looking society, and their effectiveness can be measured in more than just short-term economic turnaround. The new mandates will certainly make the UC more efficient at giving degrees, but it will not make it a superior university.

When tuition freezes, after months of uncertainty, it’s definitely exciting. But we can’t lose sight of what was given up in return, and what it could mean for us in the future.

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Ara Shirinian | Alumnus
Ara Shirinian was an assistant opinion editor from 2015-16 and an opinion columnist from 2014-15. He writes about technology, transfer students and Westwood.
Ara Shirinian was an assistant opinion editor from 2015-16 and an opinion columnist from 2014-15. He writes about technology, transfer students and Westwood.
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