The future of world-class universities

It is no exaggeration to say that one of the great historic successes of modern government has been the creation of great public universities. Nowhere has this been more important than in the United States.

Over the 150 years since the federal government’s Morrill Act provided land grants, and thus a steady stream of income to public universities, free from political interference, US public universities, at least until recently, have flourished. Today they continue to occupy 11 of the 26 spots held by US institutions in the top 50 universities of the Times Higher Education global rankings.

I present that statistic not to make a case for American exceptionalism. Rather, I want to convey how much is at stake if one believes, as I do, that the excellence of my country’s great public universities has played a crucial role in fostering not just the research capabilities of the contemporary university, but also economic growth, innovation, civic engagement, socio-economic mobility, a vibrant (if not always functional) democracy, and an engaged and sometimes even enlightened civil society.

If that is the case, then the fate of public universities in the US, and by implication the project of sustaining and-or creating what these universities represent – broad access to excellence in higher education on a global scale – is of paramount importance for our individual and collective futures.

My interest is in three distinct questions: How did great public universities come into being, why are they valuable, and what do we need to do to sustain them as part of the global ecosystem of world-class universities in the 21st century?

The ecosystem is somewhat distinct in the US, with its unique mix of private and public universities, but if that mix changes in dramatic ways, it may have enormous, and potentially damaging, implications not just for the US, but for universities around the world.

What defines a great public university?

In the United States, historically, the goal of government in establishing public universities was to broaden access to higher education, as well as to direct the educational and research mission of these universities towards more practical and applied arts: or to the “mechanical” as well as the “metaphysical” arts, in the language that was used to proclaim the creation of the land grant University of California in 1868.

When Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law in 1862, he did so to create universities for and of the people. He did so, however, not with the goal of creating a second tier of university for a second tier of people.

As colleges and universities morphed from their origins as religious institutions to become secular, they also increasingly took on a research mission of the kind that had achieved its highest expression in 19th century Germany.

The American research university was established in new institutions such as Johns Hopkins and Chicago, and at older colonial colleges such as Harvard and Columbia, though the role of new public universities turned out to be critical, not just for the establishment of ever broader research agendas, but for the exposure they afforded these new research activities to the general public.

Thus it was that Michigan and Wisconsin, Illinois and California, among many others, became known as flagship public universities: that is to say, as both great engines of research and graduate training as well as desirable and accessible undergraduate destinations for the growing middle class.

Much of what distinguishes today’s great public universities from the great private ones, however, is neither the source of their funding nor the nature of their research missions. Today, the great public universities in the United States receive only a small fraction of their income directly from the state. My own university, Berkeley, currently receives 13% of its revenue from the state. At the University of Michigan it is 9%; and at the University of Virginia it is 6%.

Likewise, it is not the substance of the research foci of the different universities that distinguishes the great publics from the great privates. One would be hard-pressed to see a substantively different commitment to the types of research being done at the top public medical school, namely Berkeley’s sister school the University of California, San Francisco, or UCSF, from that being done at the top private medical schools, like Harvard or Johns Hopkins.

Across different fields, from crystallography to the history of South Asia, the same types of questions – rooted in the same sorts of ethical and public commitments – are being pursued by scholars in private and public universities. The quality of research may vary from one institution to another, but that public universities have been critical for the establishment of the highest levels of research and graduate training is still reflected in the prominent role played by flagship public universities.

Public universities tend to have closer connections to local and state governments, and often participate in policy think tanks more readily than private universities, and there is no doubt that at my university, the University of California, Berkeley, there is a pervasive public spiritedness in much of the research that is done, from work in engineering to work in the arts.

By the same token, Berkeley takes great pride in the public spiritedness of our students, who go into public service in far greater numbers than their private counterparts, and of our faculty, who are known for their deep engagement with contemporary societal issues and commitment to advancing the greater good.

There is, however, another distinguishing element that the great American public universities like Berkeley share: a feature of our campus communities and societal commitments that goes right to the heart of why the public good is tied in critical ways to the future of public universities.

A social mobility machine

In terms of lasting, measurable and concrete contributions to the greater good, what truly and consistently distinguishes the great publics from the great privates in America has to do with the make-up of the student body, and more specifically, with the commitment and ability of public universities to provide an excellent education to the broadest possible swathe of the public.

As one way to make this point, consider the enrolment of Pell Grant students – students from low-income families who generally make less than US$50,000 a year and qualify for substantial financial aid – at UC Berkeley and UC Los Angeles, the two top public universities in the United States.

In 2012-13, these two universities enrolled just over 20,000 Pell Grant students – as many as the top 16 US private universities combined. UCLA alone has more Pell Grant students than the entire Ivy League. Berkeley’s Pell Grant students are greater in number than Harvard’s entire undergraduate population.

In terms of maintaining access, in other words, these two great public universities arguably do more to make meritocracy and social mobility a reality than does the entire private collective of Caltech, Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Princeton, Yale, Chicago, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Penn, Duke, Cornell, Northwestern, Carnegie Mellon, New York University and Washington University.

This is precisely why the New York Times’ recent quantitative assessment of the 200 top American public and private universities uncovered that six of the top seven universities in the country in terms of accessibility and affordability for low-income students were in the University of California system, leading the Times to label the University of California system as a whole the “upward mobility engine” for the state, and indeed a model for colleges and universities worldwide in the area of access and affordability.

The significance of the great public universities is not just that they provide access, but more specifically and importantly that they provide access to affordable excellence on a very large scale. In fact, the top 20 public universities in the United States enrol about three times as many students as the 20 most prestigious private institutions, and in-state tuition and fees at those institutions averages US$13,000, compared to US$47,000 at leading private institutions.

It has long been a truism at Berkeley that you can combine academic excellence at the highest level with the public mandate to offer access to large numbers of deserving students regardless of their economic or social backgrounds.

From the point of view of Berkeley – and for that matter from the standpoint of the University of California system as a whole – the meaning of “public” has never involved any diminution of excellence or quality, either in education or research. Indeed, rather than meaning mediocrity for all, it meant access to the public’s best for the best of the public.

In this respect, the access mission and the research mission are inseparable. The importance of research, whether directed towards new medical cures and treatments, new understandings of the universe or of materials, advances in understanding climate change and-or alternative energy possibilities, or for that matter scholarly investigations into and attention to the meanings of literary or cultural works, or historical questions, is arguably rooted in the idea of the public good, as they are powerful demonstrations of the larger significance of the research university.

But there is an additional reason that justifies the public importance of public research universities, for it is through exposure to top research, and researchers, that students gain many of the critical skills that allow them not just to operate at the highest levels of society, but to attain their greatest potential as human beings.

The underlying principle here, then, is that the greater the access, and the more diverse the population afforded access to excellence, the better, not just for the individual students whose material, civic and intellectual lives will be greatly enhanced, but for society as a whole that benefits from a well-educated citizenry.

This, then, gets to the heart of what great public universities provide: access to excellence, at scale. The point here is that my university in particular, and most flagship public universities in general, should be valued not just for their academic excellence, but because they provide exponentially more access to the kind of excellence that without them would be confined to a small number of private colleges and universities – with dire consequences for the fundamental ideas that gave rise to public universities in the past, and equally dire implications for efforts to confront rising levels of inequality in the future.

Security in the future

If the public good is manifest in the area of access to excellence, at scale, a major difficulty is that those in the public who are not afforded access will tend to reject the idea that there is any more “good” in a public university than in a private. Unfortunately, there has been little increase in the number of public universities or available spaces at existing institutions to even begin to match the growth of student demand. And, as selectivity increases, so too does a sense of exclusion, especially in elite public universities.

At the same time, while public universities maintain a strong commitment to public service, they neither have a monopoly in this regard, nor do the public uniformly value the significance of the services, as they have little in the way of lobbies or publicists.

What does this mean? Perhaps the best way to come to grips with the implications of this analysis is to pose what no longer seems to be an impossible prospect for the future: imagine a world in which public universities have been degraded to uniform mediocrity, and all the best universities are private? What would be lost? What would be the personal (individual) losses; more significantly, what would be the social (collective) losses?

Surely the logic of meritocracy would demand a certain minimum level of access to our best colleges and universities, and the question for us now may be what that minimum level should, or will, be?

Unfortunately, these questions are not merely rhetorical, at least in the United States. As state funding to public universities has dropped precipitately, it has become an open and live question as to whether great public universities like Berkeley can maintain both our distinction and our genuine access, by which we mean in particular our inclusiveness of students from across the socio-economic spectrum.

For the moment, our success on both registers is as high as the stakes for our continued success. We continue to be academically outstanding, and we are in both real and symbolic terms the lynch-pin for sustaining the promise of mass access to excellence.

If access to excellence at scale is part of what defines the great public university, then there is no denying that this great social benefit is an expensive one to deliver, and one that despite our best efforts gets more expensive all the time, as a result of the well-known cost disease of higher education. But with that public funding disappearing, many great public universities increasingly feel as if they are faced with a dire existential choice of abandoning either their commitment to access or their commitment to excellence.

Beyond bending the cost curve

I believe we can avoid this existential choice, though to do so will mean moving well beyond the question of bending the cost curve. Although we need to bend it further, perhaps even significantly further, we must not bend it until it breaks.

I believe instead that it is crucial for us to develop radically new funding mechanisms that will entail new and innovative partnerships between public universities and the private sector; in short, at a time of state disinvestment, I believe the private sector needs to step up to support our mission in a manner that is commensurate with the benefits it enjoys as a result of the highly educated workforce and research we provide.

Already the glimmerings of this new model can be seen in the many innovative partnerships that are emerging between public universities and private sector corporations.

Consider, for example, our own Energy Biosciences Institute, in which researchers from Berkeley and BP have been working side by side, with BP funding, on basic research into next generation biofuels designed to address the world’s desperate need for carbon-free energy resources.

Consider also the many ways in which corporations like Google, Siemens or Novartis have partnered to translate research into commercial products, and sharing the resulting revenues.

And consider the scholarships and endowed chairs that corporations are increasingly sponsoring. In each of these domains we are showing that our faculty, students and the public at large, can benefit from private sector participation without compromising our commitment to academic freedom, independence and integrity.

New kinds of global partnerships

Now, if our great public universities are to sustain their mission to serve the public interest we must think in new ways about partnerships that span not only sectors of our society, but also the national borders of our planet. Increasingly, the most important challenges we face are almost all global, whether in the domain of climate change, growing inequality, forced migration, cultural misunderstanding and strife, cyber-security or health.

If we are to fully take these complex global challenges on as our responsibility – as I believe we must, both in our research work and in our educational mission (not to mention in our public service) – we must also commit to building new kinds of global partnerships among institutions with the means and the motivation to build the future capacity and global impact of universities in all parts of the globe, whether private or public.

We at Berkeley have thus crafted a plan for a global campus on property we own just 10 miles north of our own campus, in a beautiful location on the San Francisco Bay that connects not only to UC’s great medical school across the Bay but also to the Silicon Valley, the acknowledged centre of technological and entrepreneurial innovation.

The Berkeley Global Campus, or BGC, will create new levels of multilateral partnership, not only among universities, but also with industry and the corporate world. Here too we seek the beneficial participation of a private sector guided not only by the pursuit of profit, but by enlightened self interest and social responsibility.

As we embark on this new venture, we will also provide new opportunities for our extraordinarily diverse student body to be not just citizens of California – the original charter of the land grant university – but of the world. We take this challenge quite literally, as we have decided to place at the core of the global campus a College of Advanced Study that will take on issues related to global governance, global ethics, global citizenship and global relationships more broadly.

The goal here is two-fold: the first, that universities represent the most successful experiments in global institution building; the second, that if universities work together to build global curricula and global platforms, for research and teaching, they might provide models and ideas that will predicate new ways of engaging – and reimagining – globalisation itself.

This mutualist vision of the globalised university is rooted in a fundamental assessment of the inexorable direction of the global future, which is increasingly knitted together not just around a single global research enterprise, but also of the changing social and economic role of a preeminent research university like UC Berkeley in the 21st century.

In contrast to the ‘high modernist’ vision of the state university as a machine whose output would be knowledge workers contributing to the state economy – the kind of vision that undergirded the development of the ‘Master Plan’ for higher education in California in 1960 – the Berkeley Global Campus represents the first-class research university as a focal point for enabling the state and its citizens to engage the world, connecting Berkeley scholars and local industry to researchers and innovators worldwide and drawing human and financial capital from across the globe into the state.

Rather than the cloistered space envisioned by the traditional inward-looking campuses, BGC will be a site for the flow of ideas, information, money, technology and people –moving not only between Berkeley and international universities, but also between the private and public sectors, with increasing velocity as they pass through.

By acknowledging the irreversible force of global trends, the extent to which no local challenge is disconnected from global issues and the powerful role that our universities – both within the United States and across the world – can play, we seek to establish a new kind of global presence that is fully in concert with our public mission.

Berkeley is seeking to enable the renewal of its core ethical and political commitment to remaining an elite institution that enables the best and brightest Californians from all backgrounds to gain access to the highest echelons of research and opportunity.

As this process unfolds, BGC offers what we hope to be a fundamental reimagining of the role not just of Berkeley itself, but of the American state university in the age of globalisation, and the role of the global university more broadly in an age of privatisation.

The future career of world class universities requires not only new kinds of relationships between the private and the public, but across national boundaries, as we forge global solutions for global problems, and along the way the kind of support necessary to sustain our great public universities, while also recruiting a genuinely global constituency to advocate for the critical importance of the research university in the years and decades ahead.

Nicholas Dirks is Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, USA. This is an edited version of his keynote speech at last week’s Times Higher Education, or THE, World Academic Summit at the University of Melbourne, Australia.