The ideology of ‘competition’ and higher education

See update for April 28, 2021, at end of post.


The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (“Passhe”) is a case study in the deteriorating finances of higher education. The problems are exacerbated with an anti-intellectual state legislature and a fragmentation that puts Passhe colleges in competition[1] with universities such as the “state-related” but actually private University of Pittsburgh (“Pitt”) and the public Pennsylvania State University.[2]

I’ve never understood this sort of fragmentation. I saw something similar with the University of California, set against the California State University system, with the latter generally unable to provide doctoral programs, and correspondingly lacking the prestige, and often the funding, of the former. If memory serves, my formerly favorite professor, Robert Terrell, called it “an apartheid system of education” and I have to very strongly suspect he was right.

One place this shows up as a practical matter is in library resources. I earned my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from California State University, East Bay, where the library suffered harsh budget cuts. Similarly the library at the small—and always precariously financed—school, Saybrook University, from which I earned my Ph.D. was nearly useless. I made numerous trips to the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) for my literature reviews, but because I was not affiliated with the latter institution, I generally could not access these articles online. UCSC is a public institution, so I could do this and for that I will be eternally grateful, although the closer—and also public—University of California Berkeley library was more restrictive, and it’s all because the publishers of peer-reviewed journals have far too much leverage and charge far too much for access.

So I’m not seeing any benefit to fragmentation, even as the Pennsylvania Board of Education lauds “competition,”[3] a competition that is clearly rigged in favor of elite institutions, and I most certainly see harm, both for students and researchers.

But you know, competition is good, right?


Update, April 28, 2021: Daniel Greenstein’s plan to merge six (out of fourteen) Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Universities into two institutions,[4] which I commented on,[5] was tentatively approved by the system’s Board of Governors, meaning a sixty-day period for public comment may begin. Students fear the plan will mean more online classes.[6]

  1. [1]Lee Gardner, “A System Leader Sells His Vision for Remaking Public Higher Ed,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 21, 2021, https://www.chronicle.com/article/a-system-leader-sells-his-vision-for-remaking-public-higher-ed
  2. [2]Commonwealth of Pennsylvania State Board of Education, “Master Plan for Higher Education,” September 2005, https://www.stateboard.education.pa.gov/Documents/Research%20Reports%20and%20Studies/Master%20Plan%20final.pdf
  3. [3]Commonwealth of Pennsylvania State Board of Education, “Master Plan for Higher Education,” September 2005, https://www.stateboard.education.pa.gov/Documents/Research%20Reports%20and%20Studies/Master%20Plan%20final.pdf
  4. [4]Deb Erdley, “Pa. State System moves ahead with mergers of 6 universities, including California, Clarion, Edinboro,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, April 28, 2021, https://triblive.com/news/pennsylvania/pa-moves-ahead-on-merger-of-6-universities-including-california-clarion-and-edinboro/; Lee Gardner, “A System Leader Sells His Vision for Remaking Public Higher Ed,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 21, 2021, https://www.chronicle.com/article/a-system-leader-sells-his-vision-for-remaking-public-higher-ed
  5. [5]David Benfell, “The ideology of ‘competition’ and higher education,” Not Housebroken, April 22, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/04/22/the-ideology-of-competition-and-higher-education/
  6. [6]Deb Erdley, “Pa. State System moves ahead with mergers of 6 universities, including California, Clarion, Edinboro,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, April 28, 2021, https://triblive.com/news/pennsylvania/pa-moves-ahead-on-merger-of-6-universities-including-california-clarion-and-edinboro/

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