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PLAN TARGETS FUTURE OF HIGHER EDUCATION

Over the next few years, Utah's colleges and universities will be remolded in the image of a plan now making the rounds of the groups that must approve and implement it.

Tuesday, the final plan was presented to the full strategic planning committee. It includes the work of six task forces that have spent the summer in numerous meetings analyzing in fine detail the current higher education system. Their proposals for change are contained in voluminous reports that will ultimately lead to dramatic revision of the system.Additional fine-tuning will be made by an executive subcommittee of the group before a final stamp of approval is granted.

The plan presents a challenge of considerable but not insurmountable proportions for the state Board of Regents and the Commission for Higher Education, said Commissioner Cecelia Foxley.

"As we look at the proposed deadlines, I don't know how we can get it all done. But we aren't starting from scratch. The plans are in line with what the regents and institutions have been doing," said Foxley.

She acknowledged that there could be "significant costs" to implement the task force proposals and some of the elements are probably unattainable, but the end result could be a system that is more "user friendly" for students, more efficient and less fragmented.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, co-chairman of the strategic planning committee, said that many of the components of the plan could be undertaken by the nine higher education institutions without additional money, since they involve changes in practice and philosophy. Others, he agreed, could be costly.

The support of Gov. Mike Leavitt, the Board of Regents and the Legislature will be essential to putting any of the proposals into action, Hill-yard said.

Even if only part of the plan is implemented, the process of self-analysis and brainstorming about resolutions to perceived problems has been healthy, said Rep. Kevin Garn, R-Layton, the other committee chairman. "It gets the issues on to the table. Only the future will tell the final results."

Over the next month, the committee will run through the proposals again before setting a dozen or so priorities. Up to two dozen proposals could flow into the 1995 legislative session from the strategic planning effort.

Among the hundreds of "action plans" contained in the task force reports, several are destined for more debate. They include:

- A mandatory shift to a semester calendar at all nine Utah higher-education institutions, dropping the current quarter format. The plan could be costly, involving revamping of curricula and enrollment formats. Several of the institutions have debated the semester question and rejected it.

- Strengthening of the Liaison Committee, which represents both higher and public education to oversee applied-technology education. The proposal could resolve a long-standing controversy on the governance of vocational education, but it could generate controversy in the Legislature.

- Adoption of a firm policy regarding tuition. States tend to increase tuition disproportionately during times of economic stress. A task force plan suggests that a formal policy favor low tuitions so students are not priced out of higher education. The system must assure access without jeopardizing quality, task force members said.

- "Re-engineering" of funding for higher education. The most controversial element of the task force proposal would be dropping of "earmarks" from all state tax revenues, including income tax, which now is guaranteed for public education, and the gasoline tax, which is dedicated to road building. Public education has rigidly opposed the removal of the income tax earmark, but Superintendent Scott W. Bean said he would not object if all earmarked revenues are put into the general fund.

- Protection and expansion of the role of research at the universities. Such research is essential to the creation of the jobs the state is seeking.

- Development of a "proficiency-based" system in which students who demonstrate proficiency in a subject are not required to take the course. The plan would require developing acceptable standards for such proficiencies. Some students could skip the first two years of college and go right into a major, task force representatives said, speeding their transfer into the job market and freeing slots in the state system.

While the strategic plan being adopted now will set a direction for the next few years, it is only the beginning of an ongoing process that is fluid and flexible, Foxley said.

"We couldn't say that in five years we will have this all wrapped up."