TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - More tuition flexibility linked to stronger accountability measures for Florida's state universities are among the final recommendations approved Tuesday by Gov. Rick Scott's higher education task force.
The panel also called for strengthening the Board of Governors, which oversees the 12 universities, by giving it more authority over budgeting and the hiring of the schools' presidents.
"There's about four or five really strong recommendations in here that can transform the system," said University of North Florida President John Delaney. "I think that is what the governor was after."
Delaney is among seven members of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform who unanimously approved the recommendations. The panel had decided earlier that it would not advance any proposals that didn't have agreement from all seven.
The key proposals include allowing universities to charge different tuition rates according to the type of degree a student is seeking. The idea is to use lower tuition rates at least until the state's economy improves and unemployment drops below 7 percent to encourage students to enroll in programs that lead to high-wage, high-skill and high-demand jobs.
The panel also recommended that "preeminent universities" be allowed to charge higher rates. Members agreed that a school can be deemed preeminent regardless of its mission - not just if it has a heavy focus on research.
Both types of differential tuition could be triggered if state funding is insufficient to achieve goals set according to accountability metrics for the system as well as individual schools.
"The task force is not recommending that tuition go up," Delaney said. "The task force is recommending that the universities be funded at a level necessary to succeed. Period."
Florida's tuition rates currently rank among the nation's lowest, and the state has cut university funding in recent years including $300 million this year, but Scott has vigorously opposed tuition increases. Earlier this year the governor vetoed a bill that would have permitted the state's top two research schools, the University of Florida and Florida State University, to exceed a current 15 percent cap on annual increases.
Task force chairman Dale Brill, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation, questioned whether universities would have any incentive to hold rates down if they are freed of existing tuition constraints.
"The market," Delaney responded. "At some point the customers aren't going to pay it."
The panel says its recommendations are intertwined.
House Education Committee Chairman Bill Proctor, R-St. Augustine, said the Board of Governors cannot be expected to meet accountability requirements without stronger budgetary authority and a direct role in the selection and appointment of university presidents.
The latter would require a change in current law. It gives boards of trustees at each school the authority to hire presidents and says the Board of Governors "shall approve" those appointments.
Proctor compared that to a university president being unable to appoint his or her deans.
"You might as well play golf because you're not going to preside as president," Proctor said.
Scott and Brill are scheduled to appear before the Board of Governors on Wednesday in Sarasota to discuss the task force's proposals and the governor's ideas for higher education.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)