Friday, November 12, 2010

The threat to English and Californian universities

In England this week, a once-progressive party was dragged over the coals, both by the opposition Labour Party in the House of Commons and by students in the streets of London. For most of the twenty-first century, the Liberal Democrats have been Britain’s most progressive major political party. They proposed tax increases for the wealthiest, they opposed the war in Iraq, they argued vociferously against tuition fees at universities, and they worked hard to integrate environmentalism into economic and social policy before it was fashionable. But it is their erstwhile stance on tuition fees—a manifesto pledge at the election—that is getting them into trouble with young voters, traditionally a bastion of support. For that reason, students in England are taking to the streets in protest, and are hoping to use electoral laws to force by-elections in Liberal Democrat-held seats in an effort to hold their representatives accountable.

That students in England feel that mounting an attack on Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties’ headquarters is the only way to make their voices heard illustrates the fundamental weakness of unrepresentative democracy. People were under no illusion that a Conservative government would have readily ransacked the country’s education system—for that reason and others, only 36.1% of Britons voted Conservative. Somewhere around 60% of the country voted for parties that presented themselves as progressive. But the country’s undemocratic electoral arithmetic put the Conservatives on the brink of being able to form a majority government, and the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government with them—truly one of recent political history’s more strange alliances.

The result is that the Liberal Democrats’ grassroots appeal and more progressive wing are being used to cover the Conservative Party’s assaults on public services in general and on higher education in particular. So students’ anger is particularly understandable. It is only strange that, given the Labour Party’s assault on any non-utilitarian value that public universities might offer, that it has taken students in England this long to react.

Former education-secretary Charles Clarke was perhaps the most outspoken when it came to articulating the Labour Party’s approach to higher education, maintaining that “universities exist to enable the British economy and society to deal with the challenges posed by the increasingly rapid process of global change”. There is no place, he went on, for state funding for the “medieval concept of the university as a community of scholars seeking truth”. Many of us would beg to differ, and in fact see the fusion of different fields of study into a quest after the answers to fundamental questions as being at the heart of any institution of higher education.

Peter Mandelson renewed New Labour’s assault, releasing policy documents calling for universities to focus on training rather than educating, for bringing industry in to design courses around what they perceive as their needs, and for allowing the top universities more latitude in charging ‘competitive’ tuition fees.

The Conservatives have been much more careful with their language, but the approach is essentially the same, and is accompanied by massive cuts. The Labour Party should fight Coalition policy, but Ed Milliband has tied his own hands by embracing the graduate tax (which I believe is a bad idea). So real opposition will come from LibDem and Labour backbenchers in Parliament and, far more importantly, from students and instructors at universities.

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Why does this all matter to us in the United States? In part because the President of the University of California has just proposed to raise undergraduate tuition by a further 8%. I say further, of course, because this year tuition was raised by 32%. As of 2007, undergraduate fees had risen 90% over six years. The hikes since have been equally dramatic. Today’s undergraduates pay about twice what my class did upon entering the University of California as first-years in the fall of 2004. And the willingness to raise tuition repeatedly demonstrates that there is no real upper limit.

Mark Yudof and the Regents have consistently argued that they are leveraging increased financial aid to offset tuition hikes. And it is true that there is more financial aid available for low- and lower middle-income students, and that the latest proposal provides grants for upper middle-bracket students for the first year of the hikes (it’s hard not to see this last as a cynical move to placate students and to stave off the prospect of further system-wide protests against the tuition hikes).

However, only someone chronically out-of-touch with the experience of first-time college attendees would argue that financial aid is a decent substitute for manageable tuition. First-time college attendees often lack a support network knowledgeable about the application and financial aid processes. Because high schools are facing economic pressures and are losing staff, teachers and counsellors are becoming increasingly overworked, and are less able to take students through the application process. And of course schools educating the most first-time college attendees are also those facing the most severe pressures, and which have the fewest resources to support those students who might have the grades, the ambition and the potential to attend a top university, but who might lack the financial resources or the informed support-network that could alert them to the fact that there is financial aid out there to cover or at least alleviate the cost of higher education.

In other words, the numbers—whether 32% increase followed by 8% increase; a cost of over $12,000 per year and a total estimated cost of well over $20,000—really matter. The guarantee to low-income students doesn’t guarantee aid to cover living costs, and at Berkeley the average estimated cost for a student living on-campus is $28,312. This is an enormous cost, which creates a daunting financial and psychological barrier for low-income and first-generation prospective students.

Even if the generous Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan covers students’ $12,000 in tuition and fees, they are left with a staggering $16,000 per year in potential debt, which over four years adds up to $64,000.

While cutting the compensation for UC administrators won’t even begin to solve the problem and should not be advocated as a solution, there is no reason why we should be paying failed advocates what we currently are. Austerity, unnecessary in the context of California’s great if unevenly distributed wealth, should extend to the Mark Yudofs of this world who have the temerity to group UC administrators and executives amongst the “Tom Cruises of the academic world”. These people need to be reminded that they are not indispensable to UC’s mission.

I made the argument at this time last year that Yudof and the Regents needed to raise their game. That, as the defenders of public higher education in California, they needed to act decisively and morally to change the rules of the game and to put responsibility for funding education properly at the feet of California’s government and populous. If they were sincere, they would remind people that the University of California is just that...a University which needs to be accessible to all Californians, and not a department store specialising in pricey degrees.

Someone replied, “This is not a game. Responsible adults don't resort to blackmailing a bankrupt state in order to balance the budget”. But it’s precisely because it is not a game, because state government (as opposed to the state) has been bankrupted by bad political decisions and an undemocratic law-making framework, because people’s livelihoods and futures are on the line, that we need stronger advocacy and real action. Because blackmail is exactly what California’s affluent individuals, wealthy corporations and industries—the state’s economic gangsters—are practising when they threaten to leave the state if California takes action to tap their wealth to improve the prospects of the state community as a whole.

But if Yudof and the Regents are the most egregious offenders, their strategy to drive wedges between different sectors of the campus community has been frighteningly successful. There is little sense of community as the scientific side of campus, occupying the high ground both literally and in terms of utilitarian value, shrugs off the cuts and wonders what the fuss coming from the humanities and social sciences is all about.

I’ve heard plenty of students say that they feel powerless to affect change, to make their voice heard, to step out of class to raise their voices in protest of what is being done to public higher education. Their desire to defend their community (because that is what the University of California is for many of us—a home) is undercut by the unwillingness of university administration to rally the campus community in any meaningful way and by the outward display of indolence by the faculty since October of last year.

Truly, the response of faculty to the University of California’s crisis has been frankly pathetic. The few who have been active and outspoken are, unfortunately, the exceptions who prove the rule. These are the people who see students regularly, who should be able to act as conduits of information between the administration, departments, graduate students and undergraduates. They could use class-time to rock the boat and call attention to the damage that the assault on public higher education will do to the social and cultural fabric of our state. They could foster a serious campus-wide conversation about how to advocate for the University of California.

California’s constitution reminds us that, “a general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the Legislature shall encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral, and agricultural improvement”. The language of the state constitution might sound a bit stilted, its tone unduly paternalistic, but it cuts to the heart of the matter in an important respect.

It doesn’t, for example, say anything about the economic and industrial improvement that we understand grows out of higher education. The basis for that growth is in the “intellectual, scientific, moral, and agricultural improvement”. Intellectual and moral imperatives are steadily being abandoned in the rush to create a university system which is primarily worried about creating a workforce that satisfies the needs of business and industry instead of one which can reorient, when necessary, the drive of business and industry toward moral and social questions.

This abandonment subverts the ideal of higher education in our state, which is the creation of a cohort of informed Californians, who are at once liberal individuals, conscious and jealous of hard-earned rights, and collectively-minded citizens, able to recognise that people’s free material and mental labours are what lead to improvement and, many of us would hope, toward greater equality.

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