Regents worry about fiscal future

The fiscal future and overall quality of the University of California, despite budget increases over the past year, is still in jeopardy, several regents said at a meeting last month.

While there have been no recent cuts to funding, the regents expressed worry about problems stemming from financing in the 10 campuses.

“This isn’t a new issue, this is something we’ve been dealing with over the past several years,” said Ravi Poorsina, a spokeswoman for the UC Office of the President. “I don’t think there is one easy solution to solve the budget crisis.”

Regents at the meeting presented a report highlighting the consequences of state budget cuts since 2000, including low faculty salaries, inadequate maintenance, few new structures and a rising teacher-to-student ratio. Despite the regents’ concern about financial difficulties, spending at the state level has increased, according to state Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer.

“This year’s budget increased UC’s spending about 3 percent, or about $80 million,” he said. “It also increased the enrollment budget by about [2.5] percent. So there are additional resources that are being provided.”

The increases still do not bring spending to the level of four years ago, when a string of budget downsizing that has left the university with 15 percent less general state funding since 2001, despite a 19-percent increase in students. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a compact in spring 2004 with UC President Robert C. Dynes in an effort to limit the cuts and create caps on raising tuition. The university should experience the compact’s effects this year, Poorsina said.

“We have the compact with the governor’s office which outlines the increases and provides a little framework around funding and stopping the bleeding, basically which this is the first year this is actually starting to happen,” she said.

The state Department of Finance expects the compact to provide a foreseeable rate of fee increases, not exceeding 8 percent a year.

Compared to the 40-percent jump over two years that students were experiencing a few years ago, the compact offers students and their parents predictability, according to Palmer.

Despite the compact, the student-to-faculty ratio is still approximately 20 to 1, instead of the goal of less than 18 to 1, a ratio the regents has said they will maintain. Faculty salaries now lag behind wages at private schools, according to Poorsina.

Regents, as part of the compact, are also trying to cut costs internally by scrutinizing operations to increase efficiency, Poorsina said.

The regents have to report to the state on how they are meeting the benchmarks set up to monitor their progress in different areas of efficiency, including proper use of resources inclusive to students, goals to get students to graduate in a timely manner and efforts to train 1,000 new math and sciences teachers a year to help improve other areas of California’s education system.

While the UC system is also funded through student fees and philanthropy, the majority of its budget comes from the state level, Poorsina said.

As a result, the system is directly affected by the state’s own budget crisis.

“We definitely rely heavily on the state budget, which is why you’ve seen budget crises for the past several years as well as for the state as a whole,” Poorsina said. “If you look historically, we’ve encountered so many cuts and such significant cuts, you can’t really rebound back in one year.”