By Matthew Garrahan in Los Angeles | Financial Times of London
March 12 2010 22:17 | After a 40-year absence, revolution is again in the air in California, with university students taking to the streets to mount noisy and increasingly angry protests directed against steep rises in tuition fees.
The campuses of UCLA and Berkeley were once the setting for passionate demonstrations against the draft and the Vietnam war. The anger this time is directed at state legislators and university administrators who have imposed swingeing fee increases of as much as 30 per cent to plug a funding gap of $1.2bn (£790m, €872m).
California’s fiscal woes and a projected deficit of $20bn are threatening one of the state’s jewels, the University of California system, which was given a public mandate in 1960 to provide world-class education to deserving students regardless of their ability to pay.
But the annual cost of tuition at some of the universities within the network has jumped to more than $10,000, and that is higher than some of America’s private universities. At the same time and in a bid to cut costs teaching staff have had their hours reduced and the number of classes and study modules available to students is shrinking, sparking a furious reaction.
“We’re paying much more and not getting the classes we want,” said Judy Lee, a 20-year-old psychology student, at a noisy UCLA demonstration where protesters shouted “Who’s got the power? We’ve got the power!” and “The future belongs to us!”
She added that her degree would take longer to complete because of the limited selection of classes on offer. “I was only able to add two classes this quarter . . . I have one more year left and don’t have enough time to complete everything.”
Many of the placards and signs being waved at the UCLA demonstration pointed to the swing in funding away from public education and towards prisons.
Thirty years ago, 10 per cent of California’s general budget was spent on the UC and California State systems and 3 per cent was allocated to prisons. But in the past three decades spending on prisons has risen to 11 per cent of the state’s revenue, while higher education’s share has slipped to 7.5 per cent. “We refuse to sit by while California puts its burdens on our shoulders . . . we need to be educated to help mend this state,” said Sarah Peterson, a 22-year-old history student.
The protests are increasing in intensity – about 200 students clashed with police when they rioted at Berkeley recently – and have drawn support from teaching staff and academics. “Tutorial services have been cut [and] my classes went from 20 to 25 students,” said Karl Lisovsky, an English lecturer at UCLA. Funding was not being “prioritised towards undergraduates”.
The public mission of the UC system was under threat, he added. “The more expensive it is, the more selective it becomes and the more you privatise the university.”
The UC system’s public mission was established in 1960 by Pat Brown, the former governor and father of Jerry Brown, California’s attorney-general, who hopes to replace Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor at the end of this year.
But as the state looks to cut its budget deficit, the UC and California State university networks are being asked to share the pain being felt elsewhere in the state, where public workers have had working hours cut and social services programmes have been axed. “When we compete for faculty and undergraduates we’re competing against Harvard, Stanford and MIT – and historically we’ve been able to compete,” said Frank Gilliam, dean of the UCLA School of Public Affairs.
“But the people of California have to answer a very hard question,” he added. “Do they continue to value relatively inexpensive high quality education? Or are they willing to see UC campuses operate at 70 per cent of what they were?”
As administrators and students grapple with the consequences of fee increases, the pressure on the UC system’s finances looks set to intensify over the next decade.
The California Postsecondary Education Commission predicted this week that the public universities and colleges in California would have to educate 387,000 more undergraduates in 2019 than were enrolled in 2008.
It estimated that this increase would require $1.5bn more funding than the network currently receives.
The surge in undergraduate applications is expected to be driven by the state’s growing Latino population, with applications from Latino students forecast to increase more than 40 per cent over the period.