Access vs. excellence

Posted: March 20, 2016 at 7:03 pm

Many of the discussions I had with legislators in Richmond during this year’s session dealt with the inherent tension between increased regulation to contain cost (and therefore tuition) and increased autonomy to allow our universities to seek excellence. Virginia’s system has traditionally leaned towards the latter.  We don’t have an “Uppercase-S” System, but a loosely coordinated, “lowercase-s” system where university’s own boards are given a great deal of decision-making power.

This system of autonomy and open competition has led to an extraordinary collection of diverse universities. Without it, for example, our very university could not have reached the top 200 worldwide and a tier 1 research status in the U.S. (only 115 have that status) in a little over 40 years.  But excellence comes at a price.

The best way to fully appreciate the strength (and costs) of our system is to compare it with places where things don’t work the same way.  A good example is Spain.

As a product of both systems and having taught and led institutions in both systems, I have spent much time comparing and contrasting and answering questions about the differences (this past week I was interviewed by my hometown’s daily, El País, and by Spanish National Radio, RNE 1, “Esto me suena”, and this past Summer I was on a Fulbright Association panel on the same subject in Madrid, where I used some of the data I refer to below).

In a nutshell, the Spanish system, not unlike other continental european systems, is far more regulated and uniform. Equality among universities translates into centrally regulated tuition and student selection processes, centrally dictated curriculum, and little real autonomy to recruit, promote and compensate faculty.  Public university boards (Consejo Económico y Social) have virtually no power (not even to hire or fire presidents). National and regional legislative bodies fund the bulk of the cost and establish the same rules for everyone.

Thanks to this system, costs have been kept down, major barriers to access have been removed, and tertiary education participation has doubled within one generation, de facto closing the historic gap with OECD peers.  But because of this system, there is only one Spanish university in the Jiatong ranking’s top 200, and only five in the top 300, a reality that is severely limiting the country’s innovation capacity and its economic competitiveness. Without autonomy and open competition, it is really hard to achieve differentiation and excellence.

The American system weighs excellence over access, it encourages competition and is far less regulated than the European system. Universities, private and public alike, can make their own decisions in terms of what faculty to hire, retain and promote and how much to pay them, what programs to offer, what students to admit and how much to charge them. We compete for students and faculty, for research grants and private philanthropy.

The system is expensive (it costs about twice as much as Spain’s on a per student basis) and puts great pressure on families. But at the same time, this system has produced the best universities in the world (half of the top 100 universities in the Jiaotong rankings are American) and has helped make America’s economy one of the most innovative and competitive in the world.

Within this reality, Mason does a good job of balancing access and excellence. We manage to keep our tuition below the average research university in the state and have developed one of the biggest transfer partnerships with a community college. We have established ourselves as an excellent research university while serving one of the most diverse student bodies in America. But we are not isolated from the macro trends and policies that have shaped our entire system and are confronting real issues of access and affordability.

We need to find creative ways to remain affordable and accessible, but realizing that a reduction of autonomy and an increase in uniform regulation would threaten our ability to compete nationally and be the engine of innovation our region and our state need.  As one of my graduate school statistics professor liked to say, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

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Write to Ángel Cabrera at president@gmu.edu

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