Students Doth Protest Too Much

UC regents voted 14-4 to increase tuition by 9.6 percent for the fall, on Thursday, July 14, 2011, ushering in the second tuition increase of the year just weeks before the 2011-2012 academic year. When counted along with the previously approved eight percent increase, UC students will be paying $1,818 more than they did last year. Basic tuition at a UC campus is now $12,192 per year.

The increase comes as a reaction to Governor Brown’s recently approved budget, which cut UC and Cal State funding by $650 million each Ń $150 million more than was anticipated per system.

In addition to the immediate effects of the continuing budget cuts and tuition increases there is increasing evidence that the current policy toward higher education will cause long-term harm. According to “Consequences of Neglect: Performance Trends in California Higher Education,” a study conducted by Colleen Moore, Jeremy Offenstein and Nancy Shulock of California State University, Sacramento in July 2011, California’s higher education system is average at best and on a downward trend. The study found that California ranks below most states in college preparation and is average in affordability, completion rates, benefits of education, and in state financing (this statistic, however, was based on data from 2008). One of the only pieces of good news the study found was that Californians’ participation in higher education was “better than most states.”

The tuition increase announcement drew criticism from students and UC employees who say that the increase comes too soon before the school year to be justified. They also cite that many families are still struggling to cope with the previous eight percent tuition increase and will not be able to afford this most recent one. About 20 students and UC employees attended the Thursday’s meeting to protest, but unlike past tuition increase meetings, no demonstrations occurred, which begs the question: is all the protesting worth it, and does it change anything?

The short answer is yes, but that change comes slowly at best. Each year various student groups from the UC, Cal State and Community College systems go to Sacramento to protest the latest round of education funding cuts and to lobby politicians on behalf of the entire student body, but now tuition increases and budget cuts are old news. The public is becoming blasŽ. The situation between politicians and student activists, between “the establishment” and “the rebels” is now so conflated that no one seems to know what’s real anymore and most people are too tired to care.

The problems rocking California’s flagship educational system mirror many of the state’s core problems. It’s a kind of statewide syndrome alluded to by writer Joan Didion in her memoir “Where I Was From.” Didion calls this “the California confusion,” and defines it as the contrasting values of small government and social liberalism that she sees coexisting in the state’s politics. The tension between a desire for small government and for socially liberal policies drags the state into monetary and personnel deficits.

Protest in the face of the continuing budget cuts is a necessary component to the current success of California’s education system. It helps to counteract this statewide confusion. Protests are a reminder to policy makers in Sacramento, UC officials and the voting public, that students, staff and faculty are upset with the way the university is headed. Without student activism there is no tangible voice from the student body. Without student activism voters are harder to influence. Without a voice, no one can hear you scream.

The day when student activists get tired and give up will be the day that public higher education in California as we know it dies. Although the institutions themselves will likely survive, they will certainly hasten down their current path of declining academic quality and rising expenses. As students and faculty and staff we only have two methods at our disposal to change the current trends: our votes and activism.

“The data presented does not paint a pretty picture,” concluded the Cal State Sacramento study. “The California that many like to think of as a leader in higher education is average at best and trending in the wrong direction É California may have more challenges than many states, but it also has more resources and more potential than many and a tradition of great success on which to draw. California must, and can, do better.”

Gregory Yee is a fifth-year Spanish literature and literary journalism double major.  He can be reached at yeeg@uci.edu.