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WPRI analysis supports more autonomy and accountability for UW

Wisconsin's crown jewel - the University of Wisconsin System - must be granted more independence from state government if it is to remain accessible to students of all income levels, continue to be a top-flight academic institution and contribute...

Wisconsin's crown jewel - the University of Wisconsin System - must be granted more independence from state government if it is to remain accessible to students of all income levels, continue to be a top-flight academic institution and contribute to the state's economic recovery, a new study by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute concludes.

The study by WPRI Senior Fellow Christian Schneider, "Making the University of Wisconsin More Accountable Through Greater Autonomy," notes that the system will face pressing fiscal challenges in the near future and needs more freedom to both manage its own affairs and contribute more effectively to our quality of life.

"In moving towards a model that requires more accountability from the UW in exchange for more flexibility, Wisconsin can make their most prized possession more responsive to the needs of students and the state's economy," said Schneider.

Schneider cites Virginia - a state that has restructured its higher education system in recent years - as a basic example of how universities can be gradually untethered from onerous government regulations and be given more freedom to independently raise revenues in exchange for meeting specific performance measures. Virginia universities have been given more latitude to make purchases, start capital projects, negotiate staff contracts and set tuition in exchange for meeting affordability, academic, research and economic development objectives.

Wisconsin universities must become less reliant on tax revenue, the WPRI study concludes. Increased use of grants, higher tuition and other university-generated revenues are alternatives. In places such as Virginia, however, the freedom to raise tuition is only given to universities that have plans in place to keep the schools affordable for lower-income students, Schneider notes. A similar arrangement in Wisconsin - where tuition is currently among the lowest charged in the Big Ten - could ensure ongoing access to students of all economic backgrounds.

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While pointing to Virginia as a successful prototype, the study also documents differences between the two systems, including size and administrative structure. Accountability plans for Virginia universities, moreover, are often too vague.

The WPRI study proposes more rigid accountability measures tied to, for instance, numbers of degrees issued to "in-demand professionals," efforts to keep graduates in the state by better linking them to Wisconsin businesses, and access to low-income students. The study also raises the possibility of eventually measuring university performance based upon student achievement.

In addition to letting universities manage their own affairs, a restructuring could simultaneously allow the state to better balance its books.

"The last redefinition of the relationship between the UW and state government occurred in 1971 when Governor Lucey merged two university systems into one," said George Lightbourn, president of WPRI. "Perhaps in 2011, the fortieth anniversary of that momentous change, the relationship between the state and the UW will be renewed."

The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit think tank working to engage and energize Wisconsinites in discussions and timely action on key public policy issues critical to the state's future.

A complete copy of "Making the University of Wisconsin More Accountable Through Greater Autonomy" will be available online at www.wpri.org . The direct link is www.wpri.org/Reports/Volume23/Vol23No3/Vol23No3.html .

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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