How should students respond to fee hikes?
Special to The Bee
Last fall, students across California mobilized against cuts to higher education to a degree not seen since the student movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
It started on Sept. 24, when thousands of University of California students and faculty skipped or canceled classes and held huge rallies decrying the $812 million that the state Legislature had cut from the UC budget. The activism escalated in advance of the UC Board of Regents’ vote to increase student fees by 32 percent, and from Nov. 18 to 20, a three-day strike swept the UC system.
A diverse range of students joined together in a wide variety of actions – everything from writing letters to legislators to occupying buildings – and in the end the message made it through to Sacramento: We cannot balance the budget on the backs of students.
When students returned from winter break, we were glad to hear that our efforts had paid off. In his State of the State speech, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced painful cuts to nearly every social program in the state, but higher education was spared the ax. What is more, his chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, directly attributed student actions as the motivating factor in the decision. “Those protests on the UC campuses were the tipping point,” she was quoted as saying in the New York Times.
It would be easy for students to sit back and bask in the glory of our accomplishments from last fall. It would be easy to pat ourselves on the back and return to school as usual. But this fight isn’t over. Although the governor and Legislature might be sparing education in this round of budget cuts, the future of California’s three public higher education systems is still in peril.
The 32 percent fee increase that was implemented last year remains in effect. The faculty and staff who were laid off have yet to be rehired. This is not a time for complacency or self-congratulation.
So as students look forward to how we can build off of what was achieved last fall, we must consider the context of our actions. 2010 is an election year and, besides electing a new and hopefully more student-friendly governor, dozens of state Senate and Assembly seats will be up for election. The winners of these elections will be the policymakers who shape the direction of California as we step into this new decade.
Will they continue down the path of more cuts to funding and higher student fees, or will they change course and invest in the educational institutions that have made California the most prosperous state in America? That is for us to decide.
Students, faculty, parents, and everyone who wants to see our universities and colleges continue to lead the world in providing high-quality, affordable education need to realize that elections have consequences. We cannot be afraid to get our hands dirty.
We need to demand that all candidates take the crisis in higher education seriously. Then we must register thousands of students to vote and prove to the candidates that they cannot ignore us.
Finally, we must recognize the structural problems in Sacramento and fight to repeal the two-thirds rule that has allowed the minority party to block new revenues to fund higher education. That is how we build off of the momentum from last fall. Our fight is political.