16 January 2017
by Michael Shattock

From Clark Kerr to the modern university and its place in society

Michael Shattock reviews Simon Marginson’s recent book The dream is over: the crisis of Clark Kerr’s California idea of higher education.

This is a remarkable contribution to the debate about the modern university and its place in society. It is remarkable both because of its reach, far beyond California or even the USA, and because of the depth of its analysis as to where our most progressive ideas as to the social functions of higher education have failed.

The timing of the publication is impeccable: this represents the most coherent and wide ranging account of the state of US, and global, higher education in the pre-Trump era and provides the clearest explanation of why the carefully constructed liberal policies towards equal opportunity and widening participation, most notably pursued in California, have failed to deliver. It thus provides a salutary corrective to long held, and almost universal, admiration of the permeability of the highly structured community college/state university/University of California (UC) system and an implicit insight into the support for the Trump revolution.

The origin of the book was the invitation to the author to give the Clark Kerr Lectures at UC-Berkeley in October 2014. The book is in three parts. The first deals with Clark Kerr himself, his contribution to the ‘Californian Idea’ and the impact of the writings of two UC colleagues, Martin Trow and ‘Bob’ Burton Clark whose work was widely influential both in the world of scholarship and in analysing policy internationally.

The second part describes the international influence of the ‘Californian Idea’ particularly in Europe and Asia, and the third spells out why the two legs of the Master Plan, that of excellence has survived although under severe financial threat, but that of access, based on broad meritocratic principles, has not. It quotes Patrick Callan on the Plan’s lack of adaptive capacity over the last two decades and John Douglass that by 2011 the Plan was virtually dead in respect to its historic ambitions for access and meeting the State’s enrolment needs.

The three parts, taken together, represent a severe critique of more than two generations of optimism on the capacity of higher education, appropriately structured, to combine intellectual development through research with the pursuit of social equality through facilitative regulation, tuition fee subsidies and incentivising academic merit. In 1990 the UK sociologist , Chelle Halsey, in a laudatory OECD review of the California system, described the system as designed ‘to reconcile populist with elitist institutions, access with success’ (OECD 1990).

A quarter of a century later Marginson is, in effect, saying that this judgement was premature and that our perceptions of the effectiveness of the Master Plan and its portability across other higher education systems need to be radically revised.

Two key conclusions can be drawn from the mass of evidence which Marginson has assembled. The first is that public higher education systems cannot stand outside the impact of significant change in the political and financial environment; their reputations are not immutable. This seems somehow to contradict the comforting aphorism which Kerr often repeated that, of 75 institutions founded before 1520 that continue to do the same things in the same places, 60 are universities.

Marginson is not saying that UC is at risk as an institution but he does suggest that the taxation revolt in California from Proposition 13 onwards threatens a serious deterioration in academic quality in the University. How long can Berkeley, San Diego and UCLA retain their positions in global rankings when the university’s student: staff ratio has fallen from 15:1 in 1980 to 24:1 in 2013, roughly comparable to a non-research based university in the UK?

Kerr’s argument that the stability of reputational rankings in the USA between 1906 and 1982 offers a guide to future standing (Kerr 1991) looks altogether less convincing in 2016. The budget reductions which began under Reagan are beginning to change the nature of the University. For the moment, however, as Marginson makes clear, the global academic eminence of the UC campuses remains untarnished although based on increasingly insecure foundations.

The second conclusion is that the 1960 structural reforms aimed at opening up access to waves of newcomers to higher education need urgent re-examination. The self regulated market has failed and in this there is a message which has global force and extends well beyond California.

In two chapters in part 3, ’Economic and Social Inequality’ and ‘Unequal Opportunity’ Marginson draws widely on recent research to show how inequality in participation in higher education has grown rather than diminished: ‘California now has the nation’s largest concentration of wealth and the highest incidence of poverty’ (p. 145); in the US as a whole ’earned incomes are now more unequal than….in the slave owning Southern states before the Civil War’ (p. 144); in 2013 77 per cent of the top US family income quartile had graduated by the age of 24 as compared to 9 per cent in the bottom quartile.

In California the problems have been intensified by immigration with the growth of Latino and Asian/Pacific populations by 6.2m and 2.2m respectively concentrated in areas of high poverty and poor schooling, and with enormous discrepancies between transfer rates from community colleges in different parts of the State. Community colleges can no longer guarantee universal access and are turning substantial numbers of applicants away.

Both in the US, and in the UK, low income high achievers in school are not applying for entry to selective higher education institutions even though at Berkeley, for example, 40 per cent of undergraduates do not pay tuition fees; in California the drop out rate in the State University system is 55 per cent.

This account is of much wider significance than simply about California and deserves to be read by policy makers in every advanced higher education system; it offers a background to the populism which brought Trump to power and is taking the UK out of the European Union.

In 1960 the Master Plan connected the research apex of the California system, the University of California, with the community college system which itself was closely connected with the public school system. In 2016 these connections have broken down or been undermined by changes in demography, financial stringency and social re-ordering. In the UK, where the elite universities have never had close linkages with the Further Education sector, that sector is in serious trouble through under funding.

Back in the 1950s Michael Young, in The rise in the meritocracy, foresaw a revolt against a social hierarchy based on absolute equality of opportunity and aimed at establishing an aristocracy of talent. The consequences, he argued, would be the creation of a deeper social stratification than one based solely on wealth and a sense of alienation that could only be relieved by violence.

Marginson does not go that far but his account of the crisis of Clark Kerr’s California idea of higher education demands attention not just because we have been accustomed to thinking of the California system as being a model of how higher education should be organised but because the lessons to be drawn from the end of the California Dream are relevant for systems of higher education in all advanced industrial societies.

This review was also published in Higher Education