Higher ed stakeholders express concerns over declining research funding

AddThis

Kay Bailey Hutchison speaks at a conference on research in Dallas Tuesday, June 4.

Photo Credit: Bobby Blanchard | Daily Texan Staff

On the cusp of possibly losing $105 million in research funds under the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration, UT System officials are working to find alternative options to fund research. 

Higher education leaders in the United States are concerned that federal and state governments are not doing enough to fund and support research at public universities. While the entire system is poised to lose up to $105 million, UT-Austin could lose up to $18 million research dollars in sequestration cuts. UT system officials, Texas lawmakers and other higher education stakeholders discussed a report in Dallas on Tuesday aiming to address these concerns and better the United States’ public higher education landscape. The report, called “Research Universities and the Future of America,” was completed by the National Research Council and it recommended ten actions to revitalize partnerships, improve productivity and continue training talented researchers.

An increased role from federal and state governments was a repeated recommendation made by many speakers at the conference at UT Southwestern Medical Center. Rich Templeton, the President of Texas Instruments, said federal funding and involvement in higher education is not what it used to be.

“Funding is obviously a hard problem...but it’s an important battle that we need all your help on,” Templeton said to the crowd of conference attendees. 

Former Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison expressed similar concerns.

“Today, the state of Texas provides an average 29 percent of funding for state institutions,” Hutchison said. “Pretty soon we’re not going to be able to call them public anymore.”

In the 2011-2012 academic year, Texas provided $467.7 million, or 18.8 percent of the budget, for UT System research. The federal government provided $1.2 billion, or 51.6 percent. While the report calls the decrease of state support across the nation “alarming,” it also recognizes state budget challenges and the difficulties that might come with increasing funding and support. 

Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, provided an example of increased state funding and support. At the conference, he cited a bill he introduced in 2009 that allowed seven Texas institutions to compete for funding to become a tier one research university. There is no official criteria to be marked a tier one university, but they tend to be the top research universities in the nation and are members of the American Association of Universities.

Branch’s bill was introduced to combat Texas’ low number of tier one research universities. Texas has three tier one universities: UT-Austin, Texas A&M and Rice University. California has nine.

“When you go to communities like UT-San Antonio, where these emerging research universities are, there is excitement, emotion and momentum that has been created by universities striving for tier one status,” Branch said.

While the federal and state governments struggle to make up for years of cutting back research funding, higher education stakeholders are also beginning to look toward and recommend more partnerships with businesses. 

Laurie Rich, a special adviser on Higher Education for the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, said partnerships between institutions and new company start-ups and entrepreneurs are also a crucial part of research. 

“Newly started companies have to have a relationship with an institute of higher education,” Rich said.

Since its creation in 2005, the Texas Emerging Technology Fund has issued more than $200 million to companies partnering with universities. Meanwhile in Austin, lawmakers, UT officials and even entrepreneurial students have been working on a movement to make Austin what they call “the Silicon Valley of the South.” This includes creating an entrepreneurial agency in UT’s Student Government, support from legislators and programs and classes at UT that help students jumpstart their own company.

In order to allocate more money for research, universities are also looking to make cutbacks elsewhere while increasing productivity. 

Several panelists said universities needed to function like a company, which means privatization and outsourcing efforts. Texas A&M has already outsourced many of its dining and student services. A report earlier this year from UT indicates the University could save as much as $490 million from several different measures, including outsourcing services and increasing on-campus prices to make them more competitive. 

Critics of these efforts have expressed concerns privatization would mean a price hike for students.

Bill Hammond, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, said an increase in outcomes-based funding would increase productivity at the state’s universities. A bill was filed this past legislative session to tie 25 percent of a university’s funding to its graduation rates. The bill failed to pass, but Hammond says it would have helped productivity.

“This bill would focus [universities] on completion rates, which to me is the essence of productivity,” Hammond said. “If you look at the completion rates, the sad effect is that with a few exceptions, with UT-Austin being one of the exceptions, the performance is pitiful.”

In 2012, 30 percent of Texas university students graduated in four years. UT-Austin currently has the highest four-year graduation rate in the state at 52 percent. 

Despite the bill’s failure, Hammond said outcome-based funding would hopefully be considered again in the legislature’s special session. 

Speakers, however, said funding and money is not enough to promote growth and a revitalization of research in the United States. They also expressed the need to recruit the best students worldwide and train a diverse group of students. 

Timpleton urged the U.S. Congress to adopt an immigration policy that would make it easier for foreign students to come to the U.S. to do research and also to give federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, more funding for research.

“The U.S. has led in technology, innovation and the economy for a hundred years,” Timpleton said. “That’s not an entitlement.”

Charles Holliday, the chairman of Bank of America, expressed concern that the United States is losing international students.

“Fifty-five percent of PhD and Graduate students are here temporarily,” Holliday said. “And fewer international students are coming, because they know that’s the case.”

And at a panel on diversity in the STEM field, panelists said in order to improve diversity in the STEM fields, K-12 schools needed to increase interest in the subjects at an early age.

Bonnie Dunbar, the director of the STEM Center at the University of Houston, said higher education institutions needed to get everyone involved in order to get students interested in STEM fields.

“You have to have all the stakeholders,” Dunbar said. “You have to have the school districts, the superintendents, the legislators. And you have to have the parents.”

Diversity at colleges is under the national spotlight right now, because of Fisher v. Texas — a Supreme Court Case that will decide if universities can factor in race when admitting students. Panelists seemed reluctant speak on the case.

“I actually think affirmative action is a double-edged sword,” said Yolanda Flores Niemann, a senior vice provost at the University of North Texas. “I don’t think its going to be the end of the world when it goes away.”

Niemann said universities should focus on a diverse recruitment of faculty.