The lawmaker behind two key pieces of legislation relating to Florida’s state university system – one signed by Gov. Rick Scott, the other vetoed – talked about the Legislature’s efforts before the Higher Education Coordinating Council on Wednesday.
Rep. Bill Proctor, R-St. Augustine, told the group’s seven members that many of their recommendations were reflected in HB7135, which provides requirements for goal setting and a plan to improve STEM education in Florida, and HB7129, the tuition “preeminence” bill vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott.
Proctor said those bills stemmed from opening remarks made by House Speaker Dean Cannon during the 2012 Legislative Session calling for a study of the state university system. Cannon asked the House Education Committee, chaired by Proctor, to develop a program that would enhance the national rankings of Florida’s universities and improve their performance to help revitalize and diversify the state’s economy through its major research universities.
The committee asked theLegislature’s research office to conduct a study in terms of criteria set forth in the publication “The Top American Research Universities.” The criteria are similar to those used by the Association of American Universities (AAU), of which the University of Florida in Gainesville is a member.
Proctor said the findings of the study are a vital starting point before any critique of Florida’s university system. The study showed what Proctor called “immense variation among our universities.”
Four of the universities are designated as having very high research activity: University of Florida (UF), Florida State University (FSU), University of South Florida (USF) and University of Central Florida (UCF). A series of designations goes on from there.
“Obviously, we have institutions that have different missions, different clienteles, different capabilities,” Proctor told the council.
The committee came up with benchmarks for universities to use if they want to be major research institutions or simply move in that direction. Proctor said, “We wanted to provide some opportunity to eliminate barriers that might unnecessarily impair a university’s development and progress.”
Proctor said while there was great emphasis on STEM programs – Science, Technology, Engineering, Math – those areas aren’t precisely defined. He asked the council for a consensus on which specific STEM programs should be considered the most critical for Florida.
Proctor said he was disappointed that the governor vetoed HB7129, which would have allowed the state’s top two research universities, UF and FSU, to hike tuition above the 15 percent cap currently in statute.
“We took a very hard look at tuition as compared with other states, and you find exactly what you read in the newspaper. Where state support goes down, tuition is going up,” Proctor said.
“We’re a little bit in a difficult situation because we’re having to cut $300-million out of our state support, and our tuition of course; we’re capped at that 15 percent increase.”
Gov. Rick Scott has long been opposed to tuition increases. He didn’t like the tuition hikes instituted over the last several years. He has said universities need to do a better job of preparing graduates for economy-boosting jobs.
Proctor conceded that maybe this isn’t the right time to increase tuition.
“But at some point, we are going to have to address how we’re going to fund the state universities and, of course, the community and state colleges as well,” Proctor told the council. “You can look at the comparative figures and you can know that at some point, if not now already, our quality is going to begin to erode. It’s inevitable.”