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The world is focused on improving their top universities in order to be more competitive in the global knowledge economy and to raise their numbers in the higher education rankings. Jamil Salmi counted at least 36 “excellence initiatives” around the world that have pumped billions of dollars into the top universities in these countries — with resulting improvements in quality, research productivity, and emerging improvements un the rankings of these universities. Even in cash-strapped Russia, the “5-100” initiative is providing 70 million into each of 15 selected universities to help them improve and compete globally. 

At the same time, American higher education is significantly damaging its top universities through continuous budget cuts by state governments. One might call this an American “unExcellence initiative” as the world’s leading higher education systematically damages its top research universities. Current developments are bad enough in a national context, but in a globalized world, policies in one country will inevitably have implications elsewhere. Thus, American disinvestment, coming at the same time as significant investment elsewhere, will magnify the decline of a great higher education system.

Further, current cuts come at a time when state higher education budgets were just starting to recover after years of budget declines due to the Great Recession. During that period, the public research universities used resources built up over years to reduce the damage of continuing cuts, but their salaries could not keep up with their private university competitors and top faculty began to leave.

The current situation is likely to be damaging to America’s global higher education competitiveness. This will make overseas universities happy as it will cause a decline in the standing of American universities in the global rankings—now around half of the top 100 universities in the world are in the United States—and free up some top spots for others. Improvements overseas and declines in the US will inevitably shift the balance.

Overall higher education spending in the United States was up 5.2% in all states, but this is hardly sufficient to make up for past declines. Further, little of this funding seems to be targeted to the research university, what with broader issues of access and completion dominating the national agenda. In several states governed by conservative Republicans, some running for president, significant declines are promised. Scott Walker in Wisconsin wants to cut $300 million from the higher education budget, and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal’s targets cuts of $400 million. Other examples could be mentioned. In California, which increased public higher education expenditures by 10.9%, Governor Jerry Brown, a liberal Democrat, is proposing a new vision for state higher education that seeks to transform the University of California system, home to Berkeley and UCLA, into institutions that would play a central role in “workforce development.” The research contributions of the of UC campuses are hardly mentioned.

If the United States embarks on its unExcellence Initiative, this will cause a revolution in global higher education and create space for others at the top of the rankings.  It would also be extraordinarily damaging for American higher education and for America’s competitiveness in the world.




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