Problems that led to UC strike have their roots in Schwarzenegger’s pressure to privatize UC

While I am best known for my work on tobacco, I also played an important role in budgetary matters at the University of California, including chairing the Systemwide Committee on Planning and Budget in 2005-6. At that time, we predicted the problems that would follow from UC President Bob Dynes’ accession to then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s demands to privatize public higher education in California. These financial problems are also at the core of the current strike among UC grad students and other researchers.

While presented as a response to budgetary pressures, the Compact on Higher Education between Gov. Schwarzenegger and UC and the California State University was ideologically driven by the principle that higher education should become a private good purchased by students and their families rather than a public good provided by the people of California to its citizens.

In addition to substantially cutting UC and CSU’s core budgets, the Compact committed them to substantially increasing tuition and continuing to do so every year in the future. In particular, it committed UC to increasing tuition at the average rate of income growth. While this sounds reasonable, it actually committed the University to making itself progressively less affordable for most students.

That is because of growing income inequality: While average income continued to grow at 8-10% per year, virtually all of the growth accrued to wealthy people. At the same time median income (income for the family in the middle) stagnated or fell.

But even the huge fee increases were not big enough to fill the hole left by state budget cuts. As a result students and their families were paying more and getting less.

The Planning and Budget Committee did the first analysis of the long-term implications of the Compact for the University and found that the numbers just didn’t add up. The only way to maintain quality and access was to restore state funding.

The only thing we got wrong was that our worst case analysis (Option 4–flat state funding) turned out to be overly optimistic.

Even worse for graduate students

But there’s more: the Compact required that graduate tuition be set at 150% of undergraduate tuition.

Most graduate student researchers and instructors have their tuition fully or waved, but the tuition still has to be paid by the research grants or departmental teaching funds that pay the grad student. Thus, rather than being a source of increased revenues, the tuition increases were actually budget cuts that meant less money to pay students as well as cutting student positions.

The faculty were very concerned about the pressures on grad students way back in 2006 when I chaired the Committee on Planning and Budget. Our committee, together with other committees, pressed the Administration to deal with this problem.

This effort resulted in the creation of a joint administration-faculty task force, the 2006 Competitive Graduate Student Financial Support Advisory Committee that recommended essentially eliminating tuition for academic graduate students, including non-resident tuition (a particular issue in the strike).

Then-president Bob Dynes resisted these proposals as financially impossible and claimed that the faculty as a whole would not support them. The faculty Senate then had an advisory vote of the entire University faculty; faculty on every campus voted to support the recommendations even if it meant cuts in other areas.

Even so, Dynes ignored the recommendations and the process died.

There will, in the end, be a settlement to the strike but the financial problems caused by ongoing budget cuts and the ideological shift toward privatization (that continues to this day) remain real.

The future

Over the long run, the only solution to the problems of increasing financial pressure on students, researchers and their families remains returning higher education to being a public good as it was for decades in California.

Doing so means looking past the annual incremental budget and tuition debates and starting to reestablish higher ed as a public good that everyone pays for so everyone can freely get it. In other words, we have to force the governor and legislature to confront the failed privatization experiment.

The main argument against restoring public higher education is that regular taxpayers should not be giving rich kids who can pay a free ride. No one is arguing that rich kids shouldn’t pay. The question is when?

Under the current system, students are forced into debt to pay for college (and graduate and professional school now) with the hopes of making lots of money later to pay back the loans. That’s fine for the people that end up making a lot of money, but, as the student debt crisis shows, lots of people don’t make enough money fast enough.

What we should return to is a system where students get free high quality college (or graduate or professional school) now and pay for it through higher taxes later. That way the people who make lots of money pay back the system after they make the money and when, by definition, they can afford it.

Nothing is free. It’s all about when the bill comes due.

Surprisingly, we could not only eliminate tuition for all students, but restore per-student funding (and so quality) to where it was before privatization. Doing this is possible and not all that expensive for California families (details).

It would also eliminate almost all new student debt.

All we have to do is force the politicians to honestly confront the problem.

UPDATE: This excellent blog post on Remaking the University brings my post up to the current day.

PS: Current UC Provost Michael Brown, a key player in the strike negotiations, was an important member of the Academic Senate during the 2006 events.

Published by Stanton Glantz

Stanton Glantz is a retired Professor of Medicine who served on the University of California San Francisco faculty for 45 years. He conducts research on tobacco and cannabis control and cardiovascular disease/

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