By Andrew J. Mackay
“The issue is bigger than tuition fees. It is a question of re-establishing democracy. There is no democracy. We are closer to totalitarianism. Decisions are made without listening to the people.”
-Yannick Ross, Quebec, 2012
The Million Student March emerges from a long-running crisis. A public good—an educated citizenry—is being mis-classified as a private luxury in the name of profit. It emerges from growing mass resistance to what higher education has become—expensive, corporatized, exploitative.
115 marches are planned for this Thursday, November 12. They span the entire country, from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa to Montclair High School in New Jersey. Institutions private and public, small and large, famous and obscure.
Three core demands form the basis of all these actions:
- Tuition-free public university
- Abolition of student debt
- $15 an hour minimum wage for all campus workers
As recently as last fall, free tuition was not an issue with much currency outside of college campuses. Then in February, 15 students who had been lied to by the fraudulent for-profit Corinthian Colleges went on a debt strike. With laser precision, the testimony of exploited students, many from working class backgrounds, exposed the negligence of the federal government. Last month a U.S District Court ordered now-bankrupt Corinthian to pay former students $531 million. The Department of Education is now talking about blanket debt forgiveness for federal loans totaling several billion dollars. All in nine months!
In the summer, Sen. Bernie Sanders entered the presidential race and made free college a cornerstone of his platform, leading to national press coverage and widespread discussion. The idea of a Robin Hood Tax on financial transactions has been around for years, but its potential as a funding source for free higher education is filtering into the mainstream.
Though the $15 an hour minimum wage struggle has its roots in New York City and Seattle, California has become the cutting edge in the past year. San Francisco was first, later joined by council actions in Emeryville, and most importantly Los Angeles, both the city and county. A measure to raise the wage to $15 statewide is currently gathering signatures for a space on the November 2016 ballot. The UC system announced a plan towards $15 on campus, but as this does not apply to anyone working under 20 hours a week, it covers very few students.
The Million Student March is the product of many organizations, including the United States Student Association, the Student Labor Action Project, Socialist Alternative, Unchain Our Schools/People’s Power Assemblies, the Energy Action Coalition, and National People’s Action (from US Uncut article here). It has been endorsed by Students for Bernie and the University of California Student Association (UCSA). The UC system has been a hotbed of organizing activity, with all nine campuses across the state participating.
Now to turn to the UC system. For a century after its founding, free tuition for residents was a bedrock principle. This was reiterated in the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, published the same year that UC San Diego was founded. Starting in 1969 under Governor Ronald Reagan, the UCs have moved from a state-funded to student-funded model. For more information on this decades-long transformation, I recommend Aaron Bady and Mike Konczal’s 2012 article “From Master Plan to No Plan.”
Here are some facts, using data on tuition, hiring, and income for UCSD I adapted from Todd Lu at UCLA. This is about our recent past- within my own lifetime.
Below is the tuition increase just in the 21st century. Since 1993, tuition alone (excluding housing, food, books, and health insurance) has increased 173% to $13,557 for residents. Non-resident tuition has more than doubled, to $38,265.
Tuition has increased sharply while earnings remain flat. The California median household earnings, inflation adjusted, have actually gone down since the financial crisis in 2007-08 (from $62,000 to $57.000). Higher education is just one of several commodities taking up an ever-higher portion of family income.
Tuition is replacing state funding. The UC’s 2014-2015 budget (PDF) shows that tuition went from almost nothing to a larger funding source than the State of California. Current student contributions are $3 billion annually.
Underpaid adjunct professors account for most new growth in faculty. Adjuncts work on short contracts with little to no benefits. They also make far less doing the same course load as a regular professor. The pay is so bad that a quarter of adjuncts qualify for public assistance, and the Fight for 15 campaign has supported them alongside fast food workers and homecare professionals. UCSD is no exception, and non-tenured faculty has gone from a rarity to the norm.
Senior administration is exploding. Senior administration has shot up far faster than student body growth, and each new unnecessary position creates a bureaucracy under it.
Administrative bloat costs $1.1 billion per year. Charles Schwartz, Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley and critic of UC governance, calculated the number of new administrative positions created beyond necessary growth. If administration grew at the same rate as normal UC employment, there would be around 14,000 fewer senior administrators and their staff. This waste is more than a third of total tuition paid by students.
Top administrative salaries are absurd for a public servant. UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla has a base salary of $423,417, which is only the fourth-highest chancellor salary in the system. Leaders in the medical school and hospital systems can approach seven-figures. Paul Viviano, who made over $800,000 total as CEO of the UCSD health system, resigned earlier this year due to massive financial losses in a cancer center and a bizarre scandal where human body parts were not being properly transported and handled. President Obama makes $400,000 base pay as the most powerful public employee in the country.
The UC Board of Regents is lined with corporate influence. Richard C. Blum, Regent since 2002 and husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, is an investment banker whose fund had been the largest shareholder in two for-profit college corporations. As appointees by the governor, there is a tendency towards wealthy, politically-connected individuals, who then serve 12 year terms with little accountability.
Last year UC students mobilized against a proposed tuition hike—up to 5% a year for five years. They won a tuition freeze (for residents, the non-residents still got stuck with the hike), but this type of activism is problematic. If we only rise up when a hike is on the table, that signals our acceptance of $13,557 as a just price for a year of higher education. The task at hand is not just stopping but reversing the tide. Higher education is more and more the work of executives with a business mindset and less the students, faculty, and low-wage campus workers that make the whole system work.
The Million Student March is based on simple, radical goals that will take a long struggle to achieve. But this is a special moment, and the soul of education is at stake.
What: Million Student March, UC San Diego
When: Thursday, November 12th at 12pm
Where: In front of UCSD’s Geisel Library
Who: UC San Diego Students