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Should an education at UC Berkeley cost more than one at UC Santa Cruz? Should a student pay $11,000 in tuition at UC Riverside while his friend is billed $16,000 at UCLA?

Leaders of the 10-campus University of California system are considering such questions as they grapple with state budget cuts that already have led to tuition increases, staff layoffs and cuts in class offerings.

Advocates of allowing undergraduate tuition to vary by campus say the change would raise funds the universities could share and consumer demand should play a bigger role in setting tuition. But opponents contend the idea is inherently elitist and could harm the unified nature of the UC system.

The debate is similar to tensions within large corporations with many divisions, said R. Michael Tanner, chief academic officer and vice president at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

"Some say, 'Cut us free and let us be our own profit center,' " he said.

Nationally, UC is late to the debate, with many other state university systems long ago having established differential tuitions for their campuses, said Tanner, a former administrator at UC Santa Cruz and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

But, he said, most such systems have a single clearly recognized flagship, such as the University of Texas at Austin or the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which typically are allowed to charge higher tuition than the others.

In contrast, UC has UC Berkeley and UCLA, both often considered flagships, and several other campuses with high national rankings, he and other analysts said. In another difference from many other states, California also has a second public university system, the Cal State system, which traditionally has emphasized its teaching mission more than academic research and charges lower tuition than UC.

Perhaps not surprisingly, officials at UC Berkeley and UCLA have been among the most vocal advocates for some freedom in setting undergraduate tuition rates, which now are established uniformly by UC's Board of Regents.

The board has raised basic in-state tuition 8 percent for next school year, to $11,124. Campuses charge varying other fees for student activities, health, parking, and room and board that can bring total costs to more than $27,000 a year. UC's graduate and professional schools set varying tuitions, with approval from the regents.

UC's Commission on the Future, a panel studying changes and ways to increase revenues, did not fully endorse differential tuition in its report in December, but it said UC should find ways to implement variable fees if the state's fiscal crisis worsens.

Nathan Brostrom, UC's executive vice president for business operations, said recently the university would continue to explore the concept.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said he would like the regents to set a midpoint for undergraduate tuition and allow campuses to range up to 25 percent above or below that. Such a plan would give campuses the flexibility and income they need but maintain a sense of a UC system and provide additional financial aid, he said.

"We can't just completely devolve control to each of the campuses," he said. "That would be chaotic."

Birgeneau said critics incorrectly assume his campus would jump at the chance to significantly increase its fees. That might not be the case, he said, because UC Berkeley has more research funds and donations than UC Merced, for example, which might have more need of additional tuition revenue.

His advocacy of the change produced a rare public disagreement at a recent regents meeting in San Francisco. Birgeneau and UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George R. Blumenthal sparred politely in front of reporters during what had been framed as a joint lamentation about state budget cuts.

Blumenthal said in a later interview that even a tuition range would splinter the unity and resources of the UC system.

"I think it has been an enormous benefit to the state of California and the taxpayers of California to have a uniform tuition," he said.

If different rates were allowed, he predicted UC Berkeley would raise tuition the full 25 percent in "a micro second" and others would quickly follow, not wanting to be left behind in money or reputation.

"I think once we go down that road, it could mean that some campuses may not be accessible to large segments of California students," he said.

Another influential critic is Daniel Simmons, a UC Davis law professor who is chairman of UC's systemwide Academic Senate.

Varying fees would result in "separate campuses competing with each other and ultimately that competition would be destructive," Simmons said.

The future commission's report acknowledged criticism of the idea and potential problems in sharing revenues. The most difficult issue, it said, would be "perceived or actual tiering of campuses" and "potential negative impact on the perceived reputation or academic quality of some campuses."

In many other states, the practice is long established.

For example, the Austin campus of the University of Texas plans to charge nearly $4,900 in tuition and basic student fees in the fall, compared to about $3,500 for the El Paso campus.

"All of it is based on the ability to pay, for the population they serve. It has to do with what the market can bear," said Pedro Reyes, the nine-campus University of Texas system's associate vice chancellor for planning.

The Austin campus enrolls a more national and international student body, while El Paso draws students mainly from its region, he said.

UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego could charge higher fees without harming enrollments, Reyes said.

"I know the clientele could meet those pricing structures," he said.

The University of Wisconsin's 26 campuses include just two doctoral-granting institutions, and even those two charge somewhat different basic academic fees: About $9,000 at Madison and $8,100 at Milwaukee. But leaders of the Madison campus are seeking independence from the system, including the freedom to set tuition rates.