Governor Scott continued his assault on education in Florida with a late Friday veto of the so-called 'market rate tuition bill' (SB7129). The veto came after cutting 300 million dollars from University budgets across the state. Perhaps the most surprising (and purely political) move was his approval to create yet another state university in the midst of all these cuts. In essence, Scott has handcuffed higher education in the state of Florida while chasing the notion that Universities should ‘reinvent themselves’ to fit current market conditions. Unfortunately, University systems around the country are increasingly trying to become more business-like in their approach to education with new budgetary models that rely (partly) on how many students they can stuff into a classroom (or into online courses).
There are real problems with these ‘new’ approaches to higher education. The first problem is that Universities should be in the business of creating well-educated citizens who can function in an advanced society. That means we need engineers who are able to write coherently, scientists who are able to explain the significance of their work to laypeople, English majors who understand the fundamentals of science, mathematicians who are able to comprehend the intricacies of art and medical professionals who are well-versed in a wide range of religious beliefs. This is the function of a strong Liberal Arts education such as the one provided by the University of Florida.
Secondly, the University should be keenly aware of current employment trends. Programs that put graduates in a position to become gainfully employed upon graduation need support. At the same time the University should be keenly aware that what is ‘hot’ today, maybe ‘cold’ tomorrow. Governor Scott feels that we should chase the market instead of training a citizenry who are flexible and can smoothly transition into a new field of employment. The emphasis on STEM education is only part of building a well-educated citizenry capable of transitioning to new market demands. It is both narrow-minded and near-sighted to focus solely on STEM education.
The University must not get caught up in trying to satisfy the whims of politicians. Politicians should not be in the business of handcuffing (or over-promoting) the educational system. Governors should not whimsically strap Floridians with new universities when the economic situation makes it difficult to support the established system. The University understands that in a time of economic austerity, budget cuts are going to happen. We are fortunate in this state because higher education remains one of the cheapest investments an individual can make. As the father of three young men who will (too) soon decide whether or not to attend college, I worry about paying for the costs of that education. I have also seen the economic benefits of higher education and know that education remains a solid investment.
Lastly, I note the irony of the current political situation in Florida that is supposed to be ‘pro-business’. The State government speaks about the University system using business terminology and demands that institutes of higher education behave in a more business-like manner. Conservative politicians (in particular) seem to favor a supply side economy driven by market forces. Senate Bill 7129 was, in one sense, a confirmation of this conservative viewpoint. It would have allowed the best educational institutions to request ‘customers’ pay market rates. It also seemed to be a perfect proposal for a tea-party governor. Rather than laying the burden for higher education in the hands of taxpayers, it would place more of the burden on those ‘customers’ who choose UF/FSU for their education. Sadly, no one in Florida wins with the recent decisions of the state and governor. If the governor truly supported higher education, SB7129 would not have been necessary. For the citizens of Florida, the message from the politicians was very clear “We don’t value education in Florida”. There is no way to spin this message any other way.