September 24, the first day of classes at most California universities, was marked by a state-wide walkout. Tens of thousands of students protested a 32 per cent fee increase announced in July for the 2009-2010 academic year in the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems.
Olgalia Ramirez, Director of Government Relations for the California State Student Association, explained that rising tuition fees are largely a reaction to the recent funding cuts to the state’s public university systems.
“Little or no notice was given to the students,” Ramirez said. “The decision was made in the summer, after [the students] had left school in the spring paying the usual fees.”
Victor Sanchez, president of the University of California Student Association, said that students there have faced a 100 per cent tuition increase since 2003.
“The problem goes a lot deeper; there has been an $800-million reduction to the UC budget since 2008.”
Students in the UC and CSU systems, the latter of which accommodates a larger student population, had been warned of a 10 per cent fee increase in May, but an additional increase of 22 per cent was announced in July.
Students in groups like UC Berkeley’s Solidarity Alliance began mobilizing prior to the announcement, as the pressures facing the UC system became increasingly evident when the state’s public finances began to fall into disarray last spring.
Ricardo Gomez, a third-year UC Berkeley student and member of the Solidarity Alliance, began a web site called berkeleycuts.org, and a Facebook group, in order to bring attention to the issue and appeal to different student associations for action.
Gomez’s efforts, in conjunction with those of other student activists, resulted in the Senate of the Associated Students of University of California unanimously passing a bill in support of the walkout.
“There’s been a snowball effect among teachers, students, and union members, culminating in a walkout that was 5,000-strong [on the Berkeley campus],” said Gomez.
Sahcnez explained that the state’s mid-September announcement that faculty members would be forced to take unpaid furlough days galvanized student protests across the state.
“The student action actually began with the plan to implement furloughs, so the idea really started with faculty and university unions. By the time [students] realized there were plans to increase our student fees by 32 per cent, we thought this was our opportunity to take action and engage with the public,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez also referenced the workforce shortage that is slated to hit California around 2025.
“It’s not only higher education that’s at stake, it’s the future of California.”
Ramirez said that the university system is not producing enough graduating students to keep up with the demands of the workforce – a situation that will only be exacerbated by the funding cuts as increasing numbers of students are unable to afford post-secondary education.
This fee increase can be traced back to the $26.3-billion deficit facing the state of California in the 2009-2010 year, which resulted in a deficit within the state-held general fund from which money is directed to both the UC and the CSU systems.
Due to this funding deficit, the CSU Board of Trustees and the UC Board of Regents decided to implement the fee hikes to compensate for the lack of funds.
“We have limited discretionary funds from the State. That’s the pot we draw our funds from,” said Ramirez.
A decade ago, the state provided about $600 million more to the UC and CSU systems than it provides today, even though the CSU alone has taken on 100,000 more students within that time period.
The recently implemented furloughs will save the CSU system an estimated $275 million annually. But that also means students will get less time with their professors.
“I’ve already faced a whole bunch of cuts to class offerings. About 10 to 20 per cent of the classes have been cut,” said Gomez.
Many staff members have also been laid off. Gomez said that campus cleanliness is beginning to deteriorate due to the limited number of employees.
Sanchez echoed Gomez’s concern saying, “Most students would say we’re paying more for less.”
This lack of state funding in education is more of a hot-button issue in California than in most other states. In the sixties, the California legislature adopted the Master Plan for Higher Education that articulated the state’s commitment to its higher education system. It has gone through multiple revisions since its original drafting, and was most recently reviewed in 2002.
“The Master Plan for Higher Education promised to make California education affordable, accessible, and of quality. We see California turning their backs on that promise,” said Ramirez.
Though faced with many challenges accompanying this year’s fee increase, students across the state are beginning to see the benefits of student activism. Prior to the 32 per cent fee hike announcement, students in the CSU system had successfully lobbied for student aid to remain intact amidst the deficit budget. As a result, the CSU will reserve one-third of the revenue from fee increases for financial aid.
“Students need to organize,” said Gomez. “There are more students than there are faculty members, more students than there are administrators. It just takes commitment, effort, and energy.”
Though no further fee hikes are likely to be announced this year, Ramirez spoke of the possibility of students’ associations from all three levels of the university system – the University of California, California State University, and the community colleges – coming together in collective action this spring.