Access and excellence in higher education: lessons from California

In a new article, Professor Simon Marginson analyses the rise and partial fall of the Californian system of higher education as embodied in Clark Kerr’s 1960 Master Plan, and identifies general lessons for higher education systems.

The 1960 Master Plan set out to create both high excellence and universal access, and for a time it succeeded. But Professor Marginson shows that while the California system fashioned the world’s strongest system of public research universities, the political and fiscal conditions supporting that remarkable system have now evaporated.

This, he argues, is due to the abandonment of social solidarity in California and elsewhere in the United States. The Master Plan succeeded in bringing college to millions of American families for the first time, but its circumstances were unusual: upward social mobility then coincided with strong political support for inclusive and egalitarian public education.

The paper highlights the fact that the California system’s twin goals of access and excellence can be reconciled only under specific conditions. One such condition involves a combination of low social inequality with low structural inequality in education (such as in the Nordic countries, Germany and the Netherlands).

By contrast, the paper shows that in the United States, the high level of stratification, as exemplified by the Ivy League colleges, now blocks social mobility from below. This legitimates not only unequal educational outcomes but the underlying social and economic inequalities as well.

The excellence objective is also under threat. The University of California, facing spiralling deficits, now finds it more difficult to maintain operating costs and compete with top private universities for leading researchers.

Professor Marginson concludes that the crucial policy condition for the realisation of the twin goals of 1960 is a new consensus in California, based on long-term commitment to the common good.

And the sky is grey: The ambivalent outcomes of the California Master Plan for Higher Education is published in Higher Education Quarterly.

Download the pre-publication version of the paper