Mon, Jun 28, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Universities must justify their costsof research

By Chang Ruay-shiung張瑞雄

On June 21, the Minister of Education announced the Flexible Adjustment of University Tuition Fees Plan, which prohibits universities with a cash surplus of more than 15 percent of their total cash receipts over the past three years from raising tuition fees.

As a result, many universities might be unable to raise tuition fee levels. Will this affect university management? Why do many universities seek to raise fees?

The missions of universities are to teach, to research and to serve. Teaching and serving the students are not costly compared to research. Universities must offer high pay to recruit talent, and good facilities often cost millions of dollars. In light of these factors, tight research budgets are actually a global problem shared by universities and research institutions.

For instance, many French laboratory directors and project leaders resigned en masse at an academic meeting in Paris on March 9. They resigned to protest the French government's tightening of research budgets and cutting of academic posts. Another example is a May 3 New York Times article, "US is losing its dominance in science" by William Broad. According to this account, one factor in the US losing its competitive edge is precisely its lack of funding for basic research.

In fact, most tuition fees are spent on research. Only a small portion goes to teaching, renovating classroom facilities or reducing class sizes. No wonder students are outraged by tuition increases -- they pay for the research paraphernalia but are not allowed access to these resources. In light of this, the education ministry not only set restrictions on tuition increases but also demanded that a percent-age of tuition income be invested in teaching improvements.

Governments want universities to yield useful research results, and schools pressure professors to "publish or perish." Under these circumstances, the budgets for research will only be forced upward. As schools are under mounting financial pressures, the call to raise tuition levels will grow louder.

To stop the endless "research arms race" between universities, the ministry should consider the "return on investment" when appraising universities' research. These research achievements must be measured against their costs in order to evaluate the research's utility rate.

When raising tuition fees, the universities are obliged to prove that an increase is a required investment on the part of the students -- not only must a certain amount of the additional fees be spent on teaching improvements, but also the necessity for the research being conducted by their institution should be clearly documented. According to a survey conducted by the US' National Science Foundation, over two-thirds of people believe research has a value, but 98 percent of them do not realize what the research means. The American astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan wrote in The Demon-Haunted World that "we have arranged a civilization in which the most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power will blow up in our faces."

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