STUDENT ISSUES-The Great Awakening: A Revival of Our Fight for Affordable Education

In case you didn’t know, “the 10 campuses of the University of California open their doors to all who work hard and dream big.” At least that’s what the homepage of the UC website triumphantly declares in an aura of faulty hope and vague promises.

But amid those glimmering words offering you a world of possibility, they neglect to mention one significant caveat. Certainly, the doors of the UC system are open to you if you’re a hard worker and a big dreamer, but unless you can afford the recent tuition fee increase, totaling to over $10,000 per year by Fall 2010, you can consider those doors locked, with no hope of ever finding the key.

The affordability of a UC education has recently come into the spotlight, albeit on relatively negative terms, due to the approval in mid-November of 2009 by UC Regents to enact tuition fee increases totaling 32% by Fall 2010 for undergraduates across the UC system. This figure does not include the separate fee increases for graduate and professional levels.

The matter is a very complex one, with several competing sub-issues ranging from diversity to the state budget to even first amendment rights. Yet above all these microcosmic issues, there is one definitive aspect of the UC tuition hikes which cannot and should not be ignored. It is the single most important lesson we as undergraduates and as a society can learn from these events, for these tuition hikes represent a crossroads for public higher education in California and the future of its affordability and accessibility. It is the essential question which has marred our complacent, somewhat apathetic college experience until now; it is the question which—now, quite literally at the expense of our pocketbooks— forces us to ask ourselves, “Why should we care?

We’ve all been there. You’re a little late to class. Walking down Ring Road on your phone, making plans about where to meet up for lunch, you can’t decide between eating at the student center or UTC. You pass by the daily hustle and bustle of flyering, with leaflets about everything from a sorority’s last party of the quarter to the green initiative on campus to breast cancer awareness. We’re bombarded every day with issues that matter to certain groups of people, perhaps depending on their ethnic background, race, political affiliation, career interest, or religion. But the distinctive feature of this tuition hikes issue is the fact that it affects students across the board, regardless of their major, background, or even level of activism. That is to say, this issue has the potential to attract an unprecedented number of students from all walks of life against the fee hike.

Why should we care? Because silence is consent. And our silence up until this point about the gradual but consistent increase of tuition fees is precisely what has allowed the Regents to plow ahead with yet another increase. Only this time, the enormity of the increase has public outcry following the Regents out the doors of the meeting room and onto the forum of statewide student protest. The increases may have been approved, but the issue is far from settled. The stage has been set for action from students, and the reaction and public outcry towards these fee hikes should be transformed into a sustained effort to resist future fee increases, whether it’s in the form of protests, sit-ins, speeches, letters, or op-eds.

At the forefront of the problem is the lack of knowledge we as students possess about the entire UC budgeting system, its protocol, provisions, and even the distribution of funds throughout the UC system. Though budgeting reports are available online for viewing by the general public, very few people have knowledge of the facts and figures behind not only this tuition hike but the gradual tuition increases which have occurred over the past years.

Perhaps because they were previously so gradual, we didn’t notice. To be perfectly honest, we didn’t really care. Because it was so minimal, because it was so seemingly unimportant, it was rare for someone to actually stop and analyze UC budget reports in the name of transparency.

The numbers state the raw facts. According to the Committee on Finance Report published after the meeting and vote took place, of the money coming from the undergraduate fee increase, 33 percent will go towards “financially needy undergraduate students.” Similar financial aid funds will be accumulated from the fee increases for both the UC graduate (50 percent) and professional school (33 percent) levels. These figures apply to the initial increase which is in effect for Winter and Spring 2010. The same plan for setting aside financial aid funds will apply even when the full 32 percent increase is enacted in the academic year of 2010-2011.

And although it is commendable for the Committee to inform the public of such an admirable way of spending money incoming funds, where, then, is the other two-thirds going? One can make the claim that the incoming funds are going to students who need it, but it’s a mere third of the funds. A large chunk, 66 percent, of the funds go unaccounted for in the report.

What’s more, the fee hikes have got students and faculty questioning whether the UC system is in fact serving the needs of the state of California and providing it with a diverse, competent, well-prepared work force. Achieving diversity has become a cornerstone for the University of California in its quest to ensure “that people from all backgrounds perceive that access to the University is possible for talented students, staff, and faculty from all groups,” according to the Diversity Statement adopted by the UC Regents in 2007.

But how can one have faith in such assurances when, with the onslaught of such fee hikes, some students (mostly of particular socio-economic backgrounds) are being forced to drop out of UCs because they simply cannot afford it? With these tuition hikes, the University of California will be severely compromising their aims at achieving diversity, betraying the original aim of the UC system to remain an open research university that would reflect the diversity of California and at the same time offer a high quality education. An important factor of the UC’s diversity mission is attempting to equalize ratios of the population of underrepresented minorities like American Indians, Latinos, Chicanos, and African Americans with that of the student populations of those ethnicities found on UC campuses.

A 2008 “State Higher Education Profile Report” from the University of California Office of the President shows that of the freshmen applicants, the white population of California is almost exactly proportionate to the ratio of white students in higher education in California, while some ethnic groups are even over-represented (Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders make up approximately 12 percent of the state population, while they make up about 18 percent of the students in higher education). But other groups are not as accurately represented. Though Hispanics make up about 36 percent of California’s population, their representation in higher education is ten percent less, according to the higher education report published by the University of California Office of the President.

Though the University of California wants to bridge the gap between these statistics to create more equity and opportunity for people of all backgrounds, such a lofty goal seems even more out of reach as a result of tuition increases. Disadvantaged minorities continue to remain absent from UC campuses across the state, affecting their job opportunities, their livelihoods, and the future of their communities. It is a terribly entrenched system that has persisted for years but will now be exacerbated by the steep fee increases. More and more low-income students who, even with financial aid, cannot make ends meet are being forced to deter from quality institutions within the UC system. The fee hikes will play a large and devastating toll on the diversity of our UCs, compromising an integral aspect of what made this University such an exceptional institution.

And it isn’t just affecting minorities. In a projection by the Public Policy Institute of California, there will be a shortage of 1 million college graduates by 2050. If the downward spiral on higher education spending continues this way, it is predicted that by 2050, a mere 35 percent of working-age adults will possess a four-year degree, though 41 percent of jobs will require one. Here is a clear disproportion in the demand for educated individuals overcoming the supply of college-educated men and women at the hands of scant state spending.

The injustice behind such actions have clearly led to public outcry by many people from various walks of life. From undergraduate students to law school students and workers, protests and walkouts were afoot at all UC campuses immediately after the vote had been passed. UCLA’s campus saw a bulk of the protesting, eliciting prompt police activity from riot gear-clad UCPD. There were 14 student arrests and one student tasered on Wednesday, Nov 18 at the UCLA protest. The internet has been buzzing with video footage of not only the protest, but of police roughly handling protesters with the use of intimidation and some instances of club use. The most popular video shows police instigating physical threats on student protesters w.ho were yelling at the front lines of the crowd. There were several reports of the use of tear gas on the protesters as well. Protesters in the videos are often found instantaneously recoiling in fear at police intimidation—an obvious knee jerk reaction to the UCPD arriving in full riot gear and going up against unarmed students. Despite the fact that protesters repeatedly emphasized that it was a “peaceful protest,” there was significant police intervention, a response not unique to the UCLA campus protests. UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and UC Santa Cruz have similar instances of police response at their respective campuses.

But a person can spend forever analyzing the nitty gritty details of every single assault, every single tear-gassing incident that occurred. Despite the use of police force on protesters, it must be understood that students are not only completely justified in protesting for such a cause, it is one of our only options if we want to take action. The protests are the strongest visible symbol of our discontent. With the police abusing their authority to stop students from expressing their discontent about the issue, our right to freedom of speech is in danger of being compromised. At a time when there is significant resistance to the status quo, our freedom of speech should serve as an anchor for the entire movement.

The image of these protests, the sheer number of all those in attendance, has helped create a resonant image of the anger, disapproval, indignation and injustice students feel about such a significant fee increase incurred at the expense of students. This is perhaps one of the most powerful tools we as students can employ in the effort against tuition hikes because it has created a sense of unity among individuals from all walks of life.

The protest held at UC Irvine’s campus on November 24, 2009 was evidence of that. With reportedly over 300 protesters, the most visible characteristic about the “spontaneous” protest was the amount of diversity of those in attendance, not necessarily in terms of race or ethnicity, but also in terms of having representation from a variety of campus organizations, people with backgrounds of varying levels of political activity, and students from majors and schools across the board. The coalition included about 21 clubs representing religious, ideological, athletic, humanitarian, racial and cultural ideals. The UC Irvine protest was an indication of the success that can come from collaboration in the face of a universally uniting cause. Since the protest, students were able to negotiate an increase in library hours and garnered both a private and public forum with the Chancellor. Such strides are a testament to the fruition of our collective action in the face of what has become the issue of the year.

Why, then, should we care? Because we owe it not only to ourselves but all those just like us who’ve been affected by this issue. Because we have to realize at our core that this issue is important, that it’s worth more than giving in to the stereotypical college student’s indolence and apathy, that it can be the turning point in not only our college careers, but a starting point for a change in our attitudes towards the future of public education in California

MADIHA SHAHABUDDIN is a second year Political Science major at the University of California, Irvine. HAMZA SIDDIQUI, the contributing writer, is a fourth year Political Science major at the University of California, Irvine.

Photo by Sarah Larbah

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