Opinion- 14 October 2008

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Singing of the Mayflower Compact - 1620
A Compact of Hubs and Spokes
and Research Assessments

A troika of sorts


pdf file-available from Australasian Science



In November 1620 forty-one of the male passengers on the Mayflower, prior to their landing at Plymouth, Massachusetts, signed what came to be known as the Mayflower Compact. It grew out of the fear that some of the group might desert to settle elsewhere. The compact's signatories pledged to abide by any laws and regulations that would later be established by the "Plymouth Government". The Mayflower Compact is considered to be an "adaptation to a civil situation of the usual church covenant ".


Moving along 380 years to the dawn of the third millennium the state of California had been experiencing sizable budget deficits and as a result public funding for the higher education system was suffering. The University of California (9 campuses at the time, now 10) had had a net reduction of 16% in state support from 2001-04 and as a result there was alarm that the quality of the UC campuses would suffer a marked decline. The then President of the University, Robert Dynes, together with the Chancellor of the California State University (CSU, 23 campuses), Charles Reed, undertook a series of discussions with the then newly installed Governor of the state, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to determine ways to reverse the deterioration of California's university system.


The result was the Higher Education Compact, an "agreement between Governor Schwarzenegger, the University of California, and the California State University from 2005-06 through 2010-11."


Under the terms of the "Compact" the state of California would provide a 3% General Fund increase to the prior year's base for 2005-06 and 2006-07. For the following four years the increment was to be raised to 4%. The provision for basic funding was to provide for "basic budget needs including salary increases, health benefits, maintenance, inflation, and other cost increases." In return the universities agreed to "continue to seek additional private resources and maximize other fund sources available to the [universities] to support basic programs."


The California compact does not prescribe how the 10 campuses of the University of California or 23 campuses of the State University of California must diversify, nor does it set out to form them into hubs and spokes.


It does state, however, that: "It continues to be the priority of the State and of UC and CSU to provide financial aid to ensure [undergraduate] students are not denied the opportunity for a higher education because of financial barriers. An amount equivalent to no less than 20 percent and no more than 33 percent of the revenue generated from student fee increases is to be used to provide aid to needy students who qualify for financial aid [and] it is critical that UC and CSU maintain their ability to offer competitive support packages to recruit and retain the best graduate students."



At the beginning of this month the Group of Eight released its 30-page  Backgrounder 6: Mission-based funding compacts with public universities which "explores the possible uses of compacts in government financing of university activities, examines their potential costs and benefits, and outlines principles for their design and implementation".


The salient features of the document can be summarised in the following excerpts:


 Inappropriate Central control


Three strands of concern arise about the potential for compacts to reduce rather than increase university flexibility.


One is that compacts have the potential to authorise external intrusion into the substantive and operational autonomies of universities, such as in mission determination, course approval, student mix, and research orientation. Such intrusion would be a step backwards in relations with government and inimical to re-building trust.


Another concern is the potential for compacts to lock-in prescribed activities and ways of operating. Ironically, whilst compacts may be conceived and promoted as means for increasing university operational flexibility, they could actually stifle responsiveness to changing circumstances.


A third concern is that compacts represent a poor public policy choice for a dynamic, multi-faceted set of institutions operating in an unpredictable environment.


“The assumption underlying the idea of compacts is that government experts have the foresight, creativity, and expertise to design better universities than those that evolve from the normal interplay of supply and demand. Compacts are a form of central planning. They set out to engineer a university system by freezing the current arrangements in place while leaving room for politicians to interfere where they wish.”


And later in the document:


 An evaluation of experiences suggests that the major reasons for lack of success with compact processes include:

These findings suggest that compacts should be developed consultatively, that work should be put in ahead of implementation to prepare the ground for their application, that purposes should be clear, that performance measures should be linked to goals from the outset, and that commitments should be adequately resourced.


Then follows the Go8's "six principles for the operation of compacts" which has a somewhat familiar scenario as played say between the State House in Sacramento and the Berkeley Campanile.


The Autonomy principle: Universities are responsible for determining their missions, and they need greater operating autonomy in order to function effectively and competitively in local and international markets.


The Fitness for Purpose principle: Public funding should be sufficient to the task, and it should be provided in ways that enable each university to pursue its distinctive mission and to excel in what it does best.


The Accountability for Outcomes principle: Universities have a reciprocal responsibility to explain their purposes, and to report publicly on how well they have performed against their own goals and the performance standards expected of them. The terms of accountability should be clear and measurable, and agreed at the same time as the compact is negotiated.


The Simplicity principle: Compacts, including associated performance reporting, will be agreed in relation to block grants on a broad not detailed basis, will involve less regulation, and will lead to a reduction in the current administrative and reporting burdens of universities.


The Transparency principle: Decision making in respect of compact agreements and funding will be open to external scrutiny, and based on a fair application of consistent rules.


The Predictability principle: Compacts will provide the capacity for universities to plan ahead; they will be resourced according to published criteria, and changes to funding will be based on known parameters.


Oh and with regard to "hubs and spokes" while the "backgrounder" gives a bit of history and refers to the Cutler Report on innovation, it makes no suggestions whatsoever as to the implementation of hub and spoke.


Perhaps it's understandable that there is a lurking suspicion abroad of the ERA, Compacts  and  Hubs and Spokes forming a dysfunctional troika being driven by Senator Carr's unreasoning preconceptions.


It was the President of the Australian Academy of Science, Kurt Lambeck who made the observation this past June: "He [Senator Carr] recognizes that science and technology are important, and he's certainly seeking input from the community. But it's too soon to tell if he's listening." Now four months later it looks as though it still may be too soon.


Alex Reisner

The Funneled Web