Italy's parliament gave final approval in December to a controversial set of reforms for the nation's universities, The Wall Street Journal reported. The reforms would involve evaluating the quality of university research and of university efforts to train students for available jobs -- and funding formulas would change to reward institutions that do well and to cut funds to the others. Total government support for higher education is expected to be drop significantly over the next year, and many students and faculty members who have been taking to the streets in protests say that the changes will only exacerbate overcrowding and other problems created by years of inadequate budgets.
Higher Education Quick Takes
One of the hot ideas in higher education accountability circles is that public universities should have their financing based in part on how successful they are. A fight in Indiana may demonstrate how difficult that could be. The state is planning to distribute some of its support for public colleges based on an incentive formula, rewarding colleges for higher graduation rates, educating more low-income students and other goals. But as The Indianapolis Star reported, public universities that would not do well under the formula are questioning its fairness.
David Noble, a history professor at Canada's York University and one of the most outspoken critics of distance education, died last week at the age of 65, The Globe and Mail reported. In the book Digital Diploma Mills and in other writing, Noble argued that online education depersonalized higher education and eroded its quality. Noble was an activist on many issues, frequently finding himself in the middle of large public controversies. He led a campaign, for instance, to stop York from calling off classes on Jewish holidays, arguing that the practice discriminated against non-Jewish students. In 2007, Simon Fraser University, in British Columbia, settled a lawsuit by Noble, who accused the university of blocking his candidacy for a job there because of his views. As part of the deal Simon Fraser expressed "sincere regret" for the way it had treated Noble.
Congress and many state legislatures will convene for their 2011 terms within the next week, with one overriding priority dominating their agendas in most cases: cutting spending to try to bring the budgets of their states (or in Congress's case, the country) into better balance. Those efforts are certain to create challenges for colleges and students, as higher education funds are one of the largest areas of many states' budgets that are not constitutionally mandated, and Congressional Republicans are promising significant cuts in non-military domestic spending. A Wall Street Journal article today -- citing House Republicans' plans to rescind some federal spending already approved -- predicts that "the top targets could be programs whose budgets saw a jump under Democrats, like foreign aid and Pell Grants for ... college students."
A new report from the National Science Foundation suggests that the elimination of mandatory retirement for science, engineering and health doctorate holders over the age of 70 employed in higher education had minimal effects. Authors Thomas B. Hoffer, Scott Sederstrom, and Deborah Harper found that the retirement rate for those 71 to 75 dropped about 4 percentage points between 87.5 percent 1993 and 1995 (the end of mandatory retirement was in 1994) and stayed below 85 percent from 1995 to 2003. But other results from the study suggest that other factors are at play. Compared with 1993, degree holders at younger ages -- who never would have been covered by mandatory retirement laws when they were in effect -- also saw slight declines in retirement rates in the years after 1993. This runs counter to what many expected in 1993, says P. Brett Hammond, an expert in higher education retirement policy. In short, as Nirmala Kannankutty, an adviser on the project, put it to Inside Higher Ed via e-mail: "Retirement is a fairly complex process to look at." So while the change in mandatory retirement clearly had some impact, the report by Hoffer, Sederstrom and Harper suggests it was limited and difficult to pinpoint.
Employees of the University of California who are at the top salary levels -- earning more than $245,000 -- are threatening to sue if pension rules are not changed to enlarge their potential retirement earnings, The San Francisco Chronicle reported. The employees say that the university committed to basing pensions on their actual salaries, not just the first $245,000 earned, and that failure to do so would make it more difficult for the university to attract talent. The demand comes at a time that the university is cutting pension benefits to deal with a massive deficit in the retirement fund.
A state judge in Florida ruled Thursday that the Legislature and not a new higher education board has the right to set tuition rates for the state's public universities, the Associated Press reported. The board was created in part to limit the political intrusion into decisions such as setting tuition rates. Appeals are expected.
The American Economic Association's board plans to discuss whether the organization should have an ethics code dealing with conflicts of interest, The New York Times reported. While many association leaders believe the group will not take action, the idea is that economists who participate in public life through op-eds, testimony and so forth should disclose ties they have to banks or various other financial entities. Critics of the association have said it should take a stand and develop policies comparable to those that require medical professors to disclose ties to pharmaceutical companies.
The U.S. Education Department has published annual data that examine not only the standard two-year "cohort default rate" for student loan borrowers, but also the rate at which student loan borrowers default over the lifetime of their loans. As is true of other analyses of default rates, the statistics show that students at for-profit colleges are more likely to default on their federal loans than are students from other types of colleges.
Italian students held protests throughout the country Wednesday to object to major higher education reforms being promoted by the government of Prime Minister Silvio Belusconi, AFP reported. In Naples, students blocked train tracks, while buildings were occupied elsewhere and police in Palermo had to use tear gas to disperse crowds. The reform plan is expected, among other things, to result in the mergers of some universities and the hiring of non-academics as deans at some institutions.