Part I: Occupy Cal, and the function of the university.
Tuesday's protest at the University of California Berkeley campus included a declaration of an "Open University", which apparently is meant to provide a free education to anyone who wants to participate. This action is clearly motivated by the perception that university is unnecessarily exclusive, and consequently divides our society into "haves" and "have nots".
While economic success is clearly obtainable without a university degree, formal higher education is still widely perceived as the most reliable course to personal prosperity. Such education is intended to provide students with useful (i.e. marketable) skills early in their adult lives, but also enables them to build social relationships that will be advantageous throughout life. While most people recognize the value of these opportunities, it is easy to resent the fact that some people have these opportunities while others are excluded. This resentment is especially pronounced if those opportunities improve a person's ability to compete for economic and social goods without increasing the total amount of such goods in our society. I intend to address the social implications of these opportunities in a future post, but for now I want to focus on a factor of university organization that impacts both of them -- the exclusivity of the university.
Plenty of people are unable to attend the university of their choice (or any university at all) -- either they are explicitly rejected during the application process, or they decide that they do not have the financial resources to pay for tuition while also covering food, shelter, and healthcare for themselves and any dependents. Exclusion for financial reasons seems particularly unfair, since it depends more of the economic success of a student's parents than on their own virtues. Furthermore, to the extent that a university education increases a person's future earnings, economic exclusion from the university contributes to a multi-generational stratification of society based on wealth.
The origin of this economic exclusion is obvious -- the university needs money to operate (e.g. maintain buildings and pay salaries), and it therefore needs some way to motivate people to contribute money. The most straight-forward way to raise revenues is to change fees to the people who benefit most directly from the services provided, and exclude those people if they do not pay. Alternatives exist; for example, money can be raised from philanthropists or can be allocated politically. Our current university system relies on a combination of these revenue sources, with complicated mechanisms designed to maintain both accessibility and adequate instructional resources (e.g. scholarships, loans, subsidies, work-study).
The current debate over the role of the university is driven primarily by concerns over increasing tuition and the consequent student debt. The question is how to reduce the burden on the students themselves? One option is to reduce university expenditures, perhaps by increasing administrative efficiency or reducing salaries of the top administrators. The "Open University" model suggests one path to reducing administrative costs -- abandoning the evaluation and credentialing activities of the university. But more attention is given to the loss of political funding for higher education, and protestors seem most concerned with maintaining the status quo for the California educational system.
The other form of exclusivity is based on academic potential. There are pedagogic reasons for this exclusivity -- uniformity of student capabilities makes it easier to teach students simultaneously, and it increases the chance that students will be able to help each other understand the course material. This is the same reason that many courses have prerequisites. Many educational reformers have tried to integrate classrooms with students of different academic ability, but my understanding is that this normally ends up slowing the progress of the most capable students. While it may sound "elitist" to the students who are excluded, I believe it is totally appropriate to seek the company of people who will advance one's own goals while avoiding those who would inhibit them. If this exclusion is institutionalized at the level of the university, so be it.
California has maintained a three-tier system of public higher education, which traditionally allows for some exclusivity on the basis of academic potential while minimizing exclusion based on economic resources. The UC system has traditionally relied greatly on academic exclusivity, since it only had a limited number of openings for students, but everyone wanted to attend due to the extremely low tuition. This structure is changing as the UC system expands enrollment and raises tuition; UC is perhaps becoming more like other universities around the country.
Overall, I think that academic exclusivity is a good thing (in the absence of a good teaching model where all students benefit from a mixed-ability academic community), and while economic exclusivity is unfortunate, it is pretty much unavoidable at the scale of the general population. Economic exclusivity is pretty much unavoidable for anything that has a cost--as a university education does-- and the failure to pass those costs onto the final consumer results in the squandering of resources (I've seen it first-hand). Even with these costs, access can be provided to the most promising and motivated students by way of scholarships. I'd be hesitant to provide such funding to the mass of young adults who drift towards university education with giving much thought to it. These students often have plenty of time but little money, and have yet to realize the value of their time. By placing a dollar amount on the educational services that they are requesting, we can encourage them to think about what they expect to gain from attending university, and perhaps prevent a few of them from squandering a couple years of their lives engaged in activities that are not appropriate for them.
There is always room for improvement in our institutions, and perhaps we will find ways to deliver higher-educational services with less expense, or in a way that does not segregate students based on academic ability yet still enables the most capable students to excel. Until then, the exclusivity of the university is something that we have to work with, and reflects the simple truth that a university education is not right for everyone.