The global recession is still winding through government-sponsored programs in all of the rich countries. When David Cameron’s government announced that it was tripling fees to attend university, students took to the streets–vigorously. They knew who to blame; the Conservatives promised large spending cuts, and once in office, delivered them. The government decided on the balance of fee increases and budget cuts, and was the obvious (and appropriate) target for protest.
It’s more difficult in public education in America, where administrators balance tuition, contracts and grants, and spending, with funding and expenditures from diverse sources. It’s almost ancient history now, but California used to provide a top quality university education to its best-qualified residents virtually free. It’s hard to remember now, when the Regents of the University of California have just voted to raise the current tuition 8 percent, that UC tuition jumped over 30 percent last year. The Regents endorsed UC President Mark Yudoff’s proposal, including his promise to return 1/3 of the tuition revenues to financial aid for needy students. Yudoff noted that UC’s tuition was still less than that of other fine public institutions, and argued that the revenues were essential to maintain the excellence of the institution. He says that the UC has already implemented large cuts in spending (and services), and that the state of California has been cutting its funding for the university. (He’s right on these counts.)
But students are taking a serious hit, and are well-educated enough to know that this year’s increase won’t be the end of it; rather, it will create the new larger base for next year’s tuition increases. They’ve taken to the streets, albeit in smaller numbers so far than their British counterparts. Students protested outside the Regents’ meeting, and ran into aggressive confrontations with police providing security. (One police officer, separated from his colleagues, drew his gun on the students; everyone involved looks terrified in the video.) [Thanks to Kelly Ramsey for the link to ktvu.com.]
But are the Regents the real enemies here? Yudoff and the Regents are charged with promoting access and excellence, and both cost money. They can absorb the State’s budget cuts without raising tuition by cutting spending, taking the financial pressure off the students and the political heat off the legislature. Cutting spending means cutting jobs in a university: landscapers, administrators, coaches, librarians, janitors, computer technicians, classics professors, and on and on. While anyone wandering on a campus can find things he thinks are a ridiculous waste of money, everything is really more complicated, and consensus is elusive. (Does a winning sports program support alumni loyalty and donations?) The university can cut money spent on instruction by hiring more part-time teachers; you can call them “professor” and still issue degrees. After all, for profit institutions can charge less and print degrees. Is it the same thing? Yudoff and the Regents claim to be sticking up for excellence, and thus looking out for the students’ interests. Although this sounds incredibly condescending, it may be true.
Student activists face a dilemma in locating targets they can affect who can actually do something. Yudoff and the Regents respond to a budget they get from the state, a budget that’s getting stingier and stingier as the state budget deficit grows; as long as appropriations decline, students will be paying more for less. What about the elected officials? They can say that they’re not forcing UC to raise tuition; they just can’t give them as much money. Mixed models of funding and governance diffuse responsibility so much that accountability disappears. And oh so much more to come.