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Why the US Needs to Revive a Massive Student Movement: The Case of Higher Education in California

California’s student movement should expand its ties to national and global movements in the fight for public higher education.

Students at the University of California, Berkeley display signs during a march on the day of a general strike, November 15, 2011. (Photo: Alex Chis)

Student debt loads that surpass $1.3 trillion, rampant homelessness and hunger, threats of deportation hanging over the heads of students, university professors juggling eight-course loads and clocking 100-mile commutes, juxtaposed alongside lavishly catered parties and superfluous housing allowances for campus elites: Welcome to 2017, the dystopian reality that is the US higher education system today.

It wasn’t always this way, particularly in California, where the three-tiered higher education system was once the model for affordable and accessible higher education that other nations and states looked to for inspiration. The California Master Plan for Higher Education passed in 1960 and established a three-tiered education system comprised of community colleges, the teaching-oriented California State University System (CSU) and the more prestigious research-oriented University of California System (UC). Together, the goal of the California Master Plan was to establish a coordinated statewide public education infrastructure that was accessible and affordable to all students, regardless of their ability and educational goals. This system was made possible through state and federal funding that accounted for 90 percent of the system’s operating budget. It was an admirable model that was once the envy of other states and nations, but ultimately short-lived.

Today, this system is not only in peril but on life support following a 30-year war on public education that commenced with the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 and continues full force as we enter the Trump era. The combined impact of the reduction in state and federal funding and the shift toward rampant neoliberalism in higher education have restructured the CSU and UC systems in the image of privatized education models. This system operates more as a corporation than a public good, viewing students not as investments but as consumers. You know you have entered a dystopian reality when your state pays nearly twice as much on prisons than higher education.

So what does this look like for California students today? To put it bluntly, they’re getting a poorer quality education at a much greater cost. As the state budget for public education continues to shrink, the burden has been offset onto students through the passage of draconian fees and tuition hikes. For example, 12 of the 23 CSU campuses have imposed vague and ever-increasing “Student Success Fees” (as a way to skirt around tuition increase restrictions), and most recently the CSU Board of Trustees imposed a 5 percent tuition increase for undergraduates, and a 10 percent tuition increase for graduate students respectively. Nationwide, public university students are paying on average $3,000 more for their tuition than their counterparts paid a decade ago, and in the past 20 years, UC and CSU tuition costs have more than tripled. This rate far exceeds other public universities in other states. At the same time, both the UC and CSU are becoming increasingly exclusive institutions as they accept more out-of-state and international students at the expense of the state’s low-income students and students with less competitive academic records.

Despite becoming increasingly competitive, the quality of education is also reduced, as the UC and CSU have made extensive cuts to faculty, expanded class sizes, reduced course offerings, and offset teaching burdens onto exploited graduate student laborers and poorly paid, overworked adjunct professors. Freeway flyer adjuncts lack the incentives, time and financial security to invest in student learning, build transformative educational relationships with their students and experiment with new forms of pedagogy. When the graduate students and adjunct laborers tasked with instructing the 100-person lectures are sleeping in their cars, selling their plasma or struggling to buy food, it’s clear this system is failing.

To oversee and monitor this network of contingent faculty and staff, CSU and UC have created an explosive network of highly-paid administrative and executive positions. Their job duties have essentially been to oversee cuts to the quantity and pay of faculty and staff while disciplining and managing adjunct labor, working to solicit donations and endowments, and overseeing investment in expensive and unnecessary vanity and infrastructure projects to make the universities more appealing for outside investment. Furthermore, with limited to no job security, adjuncts and junior faculty alike striving to achieve coveted tenured positions are encouraged to play it safe and limit research content to topics most likely to receive grants and that align with corporate and government interests.

For students, this has been nothing short of tragic. A highly publicized study from CSU determined that an estimated 25 percent of CSU students are food insecure and 10 percent are struggling with homelessness. Despite expressing concern for these stats, the CSU Board of Trustees displayed its true colors by continuing to raise tuition. Meanwhile, it has been a fight on campuses like San Diego State University to even get the administration to approve the development of a campus food pantry. Other studies have also highlighted the institutionalized racism of CSU and UC restructuring. It is no accident that as CSU and UC continue to become more ethnically and racially diverse, class sizes have expanded, financial aid has been cut and tuition has increased. Under these policies of austerity, ethnic studies classes and humanities courses are often the first to be cut.

With Trump as president and Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, we will see the UC and CSU system experience further cuts, and potentially make a permanent shift to privatization: the ultimate aim of neoliberalism in higher education. Trump and DeVos’s recent education budget proposal would institute drastic cuts ($10.2 billion) to US public education funding, and place most of the cuts to programs serving poor and working-class students across all stages of the US education system.

This war on public education is reflective of a growing political shift toward an authoritarian corporate coup waged against social services and public interest that certainly predates Trump and DeVos. These changes are not happening in a vacuum, but are part of the same policies being pushed by corporate-backed right-wing interests against welfare, social services and environmental regulation, along with virtually anything that requires taxation in the interest of the public good and well-being. Renowned scholar Henry A. Giroux reminds us why public education is at the forefront of radical-right’s war on democracy:

Public schools and higher education are “dangerous” because they hold the potential to serve as laboratories for democracy where students learn to think critically…. For the most part, public school teachers and higher education faculty are a national treasure and may be one of the last defenses available to undermine a growing authoritarianism, pervasive racism, permanent war culture, widening inequality and debased notion of citizenship in US society. They can’t solve these problems but they can educate a generation of students to address them.

Students today are among the first modern generation predicted to be worse off than their parents. The millennial generation is emerging out of college with a combined debt load exceeding $1 trillion, while being trained for careers and futures that are totally at odds with the realities of a late-stage capitalism and environment in profound crisis. By all accounts, if you believe in such things as science and research, we are heading into a profound climatic crisis threatening the future of humanity. At the same time, we must contend with compounding global poverty and inequality, war, rampant racism and xenophobia, and a permanent refugee crisis. As students and faculty, we must demand an education system that helps us navigate and understand these crises. We must demand an education that is responsive to the world we actually live in and the possible futures we will likely confront. Long accepted claims that education is the Great Equalizer are not tenable in a system that magnifies inequities and fails to prepare young people for the real world. An education that forces millions to start off working life in debt, that continues to prepare us for jobs that simply are not available, and that prioritizes neoliberal and technocratic education over the humanities, arts and social sciences is by nature unjust and immoral.

What’s to Be Done: Reviving a Student Movement

So how do we revitalize the US’s dying public education system? For starters, we need a revived grassroots student movement that draws from the energy and insights of our nation’s rich history of student activism and the contemporary student-led movements that have sprung up across the globe. These global movements are fighting against a litany of the same neoliberal and revanchist policies reshaping US education today. While not ignoring or undermining the excellent student-led organizing efforts to fight the cuts and hikes to the UC and CSU, an organized statewide student resistance movement, tied to other national and global student resistance networks, needs to be expanded and revived if we are to save public education. Rather than continue to fall back on old colonial and classist arguments that look across the Atlantic to Europe for inspiration, it’s time we turn our attention to the youth-led grassroots movements reshaping education and politics in the Global South.

For instance, in Brazil, as the country reeled from what was essentially a corporate coup of President Dilma Rousseff, a student-led grassroots movement erupted that organized thousands of sit-ins against neoliberal attacks on public and democratic education. Likewise, South Africa continues to experience a huge grassroots student movement targeting government disinvestment in higher education and the shifting of the financial burden onto students and families through increasing tuitions, fees and debt. Notable protests in Chile, Quebec, India and most recently Russia, to name a few, demonstrate the power of students to organize for change. Chile, in particular has a similar history of neoliberal education reform, but a much more organized and widespread student movement. In Quebec, for instance, students were able to offset rapid tuition and fee increases and drastically slow the increase of college costs.

Domestically, we can learn from recent protests on campuses nationwide that have begun to challenge institutionalized racism on college campuses. These protests have made real gains, from the ousting of campus administrators at the University of Missouri for their racist statements, to the eradication of racist images and toponyms at Yale and Harvard, to the central role student activists have had in opposition to Trump and institutionalized white supremacy. Not only are these movements helping advocate for higher education systems that take on and begin to strip themselves of institutionalized racism, they are also advocating for better working and learning conditions that challenge the neoliberalization of higher education.

We should also be inspired today by student activist legacies in the US. Not only was this activism central to the civil rights movement, but most of the ethnic studies and women’s studies departments can be directly tied to the success of student activism. This is but a brief summary of a much longer and broader litany of student activist accomplishments, but it should make clear that student activism is and has been instrumental to wider socio-political change. We cannot expect the US to implement affordable and accessible public education, to adequately and fiercely protect the rights of our students and faculty of color, and to begin the hard process of dismantling settler-colonial campus landscapes if left to their own volition. Instead, we need a sustained and well-organized campus opposition that demands quality, affordability and a transformative educational experience that prepares students for the realities of the world we will inherit. To help build these efforts, we encourage readers to check out the organizing resources linked at Sprout Distro here and at Atrium Press here, but most importantly, to start organizing. With care, we can build an opposition that is not afraid to challenge and hold campus leadership accountable.