Internationally, Public Universities Struggle in Wake of Recession

HONOLULU (July 22, 2010) – In the wake of the recent economic crisis, many public universities have been left starved for funding and are increasingly seeking support from private sources, according to a group of university administrators who spoke at the East-West Center's recent 50th Anniversary International Conference. The speakers at a panel discussion on "Higher Education in the Great Recession" said they've had to consider raising tuition, seek more donations and rethink the way they operate.

Video of the panel is available online at www.vimeo.com/13552508

"(The recession) has definitely not left us in its wake. It is continuing to drag us along," said M.R.C. Greenwood, president of the University of Hawai'i System and an ex-officio member of the East-West Center Board of Governors. "We have to change for our students."

Administrators from the U.S. and Japan shared stories about lower government support and what they were doing to deal with the shortfall.

Greenwood said her 10-campus system has faced consecutive double-digit cuts in state funding in the past two years and has had to cut salaries.

At the University of Utah, a top public research university with more than 29,000 students, public funding as a percentage of the budget has been dwindling over the past 25 years, said Michael Young, the university's president and another EWC Board of Governors member.

In Japan, national universities have had government block grants cut by 1 percent per year over the last six years, also forcing a search for more private sector funding, said Kazuhiko Takeuchi, Vice-Rector of United Nations University, Japan.

Well-known Japanese national universities have been able to attract such money, but those in the countryside are not doing as well, Takeuchi said.

In China, there are an entirely different set of problems brought on by economic growth and investments in higher education.

John Hawkins, a University of California, Los Angeles professor emeritus and East-West Center consultant on education, said the system in China is trying to cope with huge demand for university education while facing quality issues.

"It's a dynamic system. It's very much in flux," Hawkins said.

China also has issues with access and equity, such as whether national entrance exams are discriminatory against rural and ethnic minorities, Hawkins said. He said China's push for a system of elite universities raises questions about the best use of resources when outlying universities need more funding to improve student/teacher ratios.

In the United States, many state governments are pulling back on university funding because of their own troubled finances. Both Greenwood and Young said the cuts have come even though there's ample proof that public universities are critical to the success of the country and the areas where they are located.

"The importance of universities in the U.S. can't be overestimated," said Young, including turning out graduates who are more charitable, use less social services and pay more taxes than non-graduates.

The University of Hawai'i System has sought more private funding, some of which has been in the form of tuition increases, Greenwood said. But further changes may be in order, including a greater focus on the university system's international role and seeking long-term opportunities with other institutions in the Asia Pacific region, she said.

This could include strategic alliances in science and technology on projects such as the Thirty Meter Telescope being planned for Hawai'i Island, Greenwood, said. When completed, the project will be the world's most advanced observatory.

Young said the University of Utah has had great success going after private dollars through a $1.2 billion fund-raising campaign and hundreds of millions of dollars in research and training awards.

Still, he said, he worries at night whether the university is straying from its core educational mission. "I think it is possible to thrive in this environment," Young said. "But what is the cost of that?"

Social Sciences and humanities may see their budgets cut, Hawkins said, while engineering and science programs may continue to do well because of their ability to attract research grants.

The administrators also said the U.S. needs a better approach to visas so that more foreign students can study here. States with restrictions on how many foreign students may be enrolled also need to lift the limits, they said.

"This is an economic issue," said Greenwood, explaining that many students who are turned away from the U.S. are heading to universities in Europe and Australia.

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