Reform needed in higher education

By Observer editorial February 08, 2011 02:32 pm
Sometimes being No. 1 in the nation is great. Sometimes it’s not. Oregon is No. 1 in hazelnut growing, and the University of Oregon topped the football polls for a while last fall, but the state is also No. 1, apparently, in the Legislature micromanaging the state higher education system.
That doesn’t mean higher education is functioning like a well-oiled top. In fact, the system faces a possible 20 percent cut in funding for the 2011-13 biennium.

That being true, it may be time for a new way of doing business in Oregon. In rides Senate Bill 242 to the rescue. Should the bill pass and be signed into law during the current legislative session in Salem, EOU would become part of a public university system. It’s not an instant cure for all that ails higher education in the state. But it is a start.

Under the bill, line-item funding would give way to a block-grant funding system similar to Oregon’s K-12 and community college system. What’s more, the state would no longer be able to raid tuition dollars and put it to non-higher education uses, or take for the general fund the interest made on tuition dollars. Such sweeps, which have happened several times over the past two decades, have made it challenging for universities to plan, and it has made them reluctant to add to their contingency funds.

The proposal, if passed, would ensure the money students and their families pay for education is used for that purpose. The bill would ensure tuition and the interest earned on it stay at the university where it was received to fund education.

The seven universities in the Oregon University System, meanwhile, would be free from stifling bureaucratic regulations. That would help the universities be able to focus on their main mission — preparing students for real world careers. Universities could be managed more like the businesses they are, with increased operating flexibility and improved cost controls.

University leaders say the current micromanagement makes planning and budgeting difficult. The block appropriation budgeting approach would make Oregon’s universities more performance driven and reduce the bureaucracy and automatic budget adjustments. The state would give its universities more solid funding and flexibility in exchange for measurable education and research outcomes.

Micromanaging has not been good for the Oregon system. Universities need more flexibility in meeting the needs of students, and campuses need to remain accountable for meeting state goals for an educated and productive citizenry. SB 242 would go a long way toward making that happen.