Saturday, March 22, 2014

UC Regents Threaten California's Students With Tuition Increase

California’s Pollyanna Governor, Jerry Brown, has been trumpeting the Golden State’s “comeback” for a year now.  Brown, you will recall, subjected the state to a punishing round of cuts to its public sphere for two years before voters passed a modest, temporary, and inadequate tax increase in the form of Prop 30. 

Prop 30 amounted to a band-aid slapped on a gaping, festering wound, inflicted over a series of decades on some of the state’s most critical institutions by an increasingly indifferent public and a fundamentalist Republican Party which ruled the state unaccountably from the sidelines by virtue of the minority rule enshrined by Prop 13.

California’s preeminent public institution, the University of California, perhaps made the mistake of taking Governor Brown at his word when he declared that California is in a revitalised mode.  The UC thought this might mean that the state would begin to live up to its responsibilities and restore the funding that had been stripped steadily away over a period of decades.

That process of divestment from the UC began under Ronald Reagan who, at the precise moment that California was asking UC to do more complicated things for the state, took a punitive approach to the University because of the opposition to his program which it represented.  And it has continued, albeit at different rates, ever since.

After a particularly severe set of fee increases between 2009 and 2011 (over one summer, alone, fees jumped 32%), under pressure from a restive student body and a concerned, Democrat-dominated legislature, UC froze tuition.  But that tuition more than doubled since I entered UC as an undergraduate in 2004.  The bulk of that increase occurred since the most dramatic increases began in 2009.

The result has been an increasingly indebted student body, members of which are increasingly working longer hours outside of school to make ends meet while paying higher fees and high costs of living.  Longer working hours prevent students from completing on time, and divestment has also contributed to a reduction of course offerings, which makes it even more difficult for students to access the courses they require to graduate.

The University of California is already public in name only, given the massive burden it imposes on would-be students and their families, California’s public having shrugged off their communal responsibility for the education of our young citizens.  That public designation remains important because it shields students from further, more open abuse by UC.

But the future of UC as a public institution of any sort is clearly unsustainable absent a reinvestment by the state.  And to their credit, some of UC’s leadership, as well as a small but impassioned number of students across the ten-campus system, are actively seeking a restoration of funding, reminding California what a truly public University system contributes in economic, social, and moral terms to our state.

But state funding for the coming year falls short of what the University had requested, and the UC Regents, a corporate-minded body which handed out obscene administrative raises even as it hiked tuition, are contemplating a fee-increase as an answer to the Governor’s refusal to offer a substantial restoration of funding to the beleaguered University.

Indeed, last year Governor Brown crudely threatened to force-feed UC a “reality sandwich” in the form of a “gigantic tuition increase”.  Our penny-pinching Governor has always been more of a Tea Partier than a progressive given his prioritisation of budgets over people’s livelihoods. 

But Brown’s behaviour and rhetoric has been stunningly regressive even by his standards.  He characterised the restoration of public funding to UC as the equivalent of a bailout, equating students who are on the ropes with millionaire bankers who crashed our economy, and suggesting that public institutions charged with the education of our youth are no different from private, for-profit financial institutions. 

It feels absurd having to say so, but these are drastically different groups of people.  Bankers were already wealthy people who had broken or manipulated the law in a way which did great harm to our society and our economy.  People were rightly outraged when they asked for and received bailout money which in many cases was used to fashion golden parachutes on which they drifted upwards to the economic stratosphere.  

Students, on the other hand, are a socially and economically fragile group, and are simply asking for the State of California to live up to its responsibility by funding UC at a rate that at least begins to limp back towards its former levels. 

At a time when job prospects and security are increasingly poor, and at a time when UC research and UC graduates are increasingly critical to the growing sectors of the state’s economy, the University administration should not under any circumstances be asking students to pay higher tuition, a move which will only further degrade UC’s public character and the experience of students therein.  Similarly, Californians should not be ducking their responsibility as a community by leaving the maintenance to one of their most important institutions to individual students and their families.

The idea of a tuition increase at a time of economic uncertainty and hardship for many Californians is insulting, and the Regents and the Governor go down this deeply irresponsible road at their peril.  I hope that UC students and faculty will take strong action, supported by the wider state community, to deter the Regents and the Governor from contributing to the growth of inequality in California. 

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