Higher education for the public good: lessons from California

In a new article, Professor Simon Marginson examines the rise and partial fall of the Californian system of higher education as embodied in Clark Kerr’s 1960 Master Plan, and draws out lessons for other countries, China in particular.

Professor Marginson discusses the fact that both China and California have large and institutionally complex higher education systems, with hierarchical divisions. In both societies, the most affluent classes are most strongly placed in relation to higher education; and in California, where large-scale mass higher education emerged 50 years earlier than in China, it is evident that the upper middle class has gained stronger influence over time.

A steep hierarchy of universities is potentially damaging to social equality, Professor Marginson warns, and becomes a decisive limitation to equality if the lower tiers are neglected. China should not restrict its focus to building the quality of the top world-class universities. California looked after its top public universities much better than its second and third tier institutions, which have gone backwards rather than forwards as a result.

Steep stratification of institutions, as well as creating unequal social opportunities to access the top professional positions through higher education, tends to empty out the social value of mass higher education, further undermining equity. The Ivy League universities in the US parallel the class they serve; whereas higher education in the Nordic countries, the German-speaking countries and the Netherlands are, by contrast, more democratic, and in turn they foster more democratic societies with greater social mobility from poor backgrounds.

This highlights the importance of creating not only world-class universities, but a world-class higher education system. Professor Marginson argues that countries should achieve more modest differences in the quality of universities, by levelling up rather than levelling down. They should elevate the lower tiers while at the same time continuing to improve the quality of the top research universities.

But the case of California also shows that shared social values, made real in concrete economic and social priorities, are essential if public higher education is to be socially inclusive. Egalitarian policy rhetoric alone is not enough to guarantee the continuing renewal of equal opportunity. A progressive taxation system, coupled with firm egalitarian education policy, is, states Professor Marginson, ‘the lynchpin of commitment to the common good’.

In China, the capacity of higher education to enhance social equality is partly constrained by inequality in the larger social environment. It requires a firm state policy to counteract this. Such a policy was missing in California, at least after the first two decades of the Master Plan. The Chinese government should remain effectively focused on both excellence and access in higher education. The idea of higher education for the public good may then become more robust in China than it has proven to be in California.

The Master Plan and the California higher education system: success, failure and implications for China is published in The International Journal of Chinese Education.