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The Challenge for UC Students: Moving from Campuses into State Budget Politics

November 30, 2011

In recent weeks, violent police actions at UC Davis and UC Berkeley have focused the nation’s attention on public universities across California. On November 9th at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, students protesting tuition increases were assaulted by police officers with batons, leaving one protestor with a broken rib. The following week, a police officer brazenly shot seated protestors with pepper spray. A YouTube clip of the UC Davis incident gained 1 million views in four days.

A week after the police violence at UC Berkeley, protestors returned to Sproul Plaza. That evening, over four thousand students packed the Plaza to hear former Secretary of Labor and Berkeley professor Robert Reich speak, many crowding adjacent rooftops. “The days of apathy are over,” Reich said. If the past weeks are any indication, the days of apathy truly are over. While the police actions were reprehensible and must be addressed, students have remained focused on their goal: reversing the repeated tuition hikes of recent years. They have raised their voices against rapidly diminishing opportunities for many of California’s brightest young people and against the dismantling of one of the best public university systems in the world.

The day after Reich spoke, buses were scheduled to bring Berkeley students to the UC Regents’ meeting in San Francisco but, after the Regents cancelled the meeting citing safety concerns, the buses were rerouted to Sacramento where students held a press conference and met with legislators and their staffs.

In a way, the Regents’ cancellation was fortuitous: it allowed students to confront the problem at its root. While the Regents approve tuition increases, their decisions are constrained by UC’s allocation in the California budget. California’s budget is passed by legislators in Sacramento, who are elected by voters. To reverse the current trend of disinvestment from higher education, students must influence legislators and voters to convince them that the California’s public university system is worth preserving.

California’s budget is a problem for the UC both it is shrinking and the UC’s portion of it is shrinking. In 1970, the University of California received 7% of California’s general fund. Today, it receives 3.5%. In terms of the total budget, general fund revenue as percentage of total personal income hit historic lows in the 2008-2009 and since then has remained near those levels.

Increasing the UC’s proportion of the state budget requires cutting in other areas, and most of California’s social services have been hit as hard if not harder than higher education by recent budget cuts. While UC funding should increased, it should not be increased at the expense of Californians in need. The bloated prisons budget offer an opportunity to reallocate funding to the UC but this would involve policy changes outside the scope of the budget process that would be difficult connect to UC funding.

The most direct way to increase UC funding, then, is by increasing total state revenues. As I’ve said, this requires convincing California voters that higher education is worth higher taxes. The UC is clearly worth paying for: a recent study showed that every $1 spent on the UC results in $14 of economic output, without including the impact of human capital development such as spinoff companies based on UC research or the economic contributions of UC alumni. However, a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that, while 74% of Californians believed that higher education was underfunded, only 49% of likely voters would pay higher taxes to maintain current funding. Voters need to be convinced that the UC’s historic excellence is worth higher taxes.

Next fall’s election will present multiple opportunities for UC students to influence the future of California. As many as three ballot measures increasing taxes could be on the ballot and the redistricting maps drawn after the 2010 Census have opened a slight possibility that Democrats could gain the supermajority necessary to raise taxes without Republican support. Of course, even if Democrats gain a supermajority, students will have to continue to pressure Democrats to make sure they follow through on their commitments to support higher education.

Beyond next fall, students should act to move Prop. 13 from its place as the third rail of California politics to a subject for debate. If Democrats do not gain a two-thirds supermajority in the Legislature, Prop. 13 will continue to allow intransigent anti-tax legislators to block revenue increasing measures and deny full funding of the UC as well as other social services. Repealing Prop. 13 would increase political accountability and foster an honest debate among Californians about what state functions, including higher education, are worth paying for.

It is understandable that the nationwide Occupy Movement has shunned involvement with traditional politics to maintain its organic character. However, for the tuition increases to be stopped, UC students must move beyond occupying their campuses to engage with California’s political process. The recent trip to Sacramento was a start, but there’s a long way to go.

Update: I wrote the above piece on Nov. 21 for a class. Because of the word limit, I had to gloss over a few things so I want to put add a bit more nuance here.

Earlier this week, students protested at the Regents’ meetings which were being held at different UC campuses across the state, turning the meetings into assemblies of the “People’s Regents”. I support these actions. The Regents do make decisions that on how to spend the funding allotted by the state budget. Spending that money on administrators’ salaries while raising tuition rates makes the UC’s less affordable and less accessible, and that is a decision that is solely in the control of the Regents. So, influencing the Regents is important. However, I still believe that the root problem is the shrinking budget and the UC’s shrinking piece of that budget, and the way to address this is by influencing voters and legislators. Protests at the Regents’ meetings can be part of this strategy but students should keep their eye on the ultimate decisionmakers.

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