The Breaking Point

University Issues: Proposed fee hikes would put all the financial burden on students, seriously threatening the university's public status.

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In its first business meeting of the fall semester, the UC Board of Regents will consider a proposal to implement the expected mid-year fee increase of 7.5 percent and an unprecedented hike of 32 percent, which would be implemented next academic year.

For everyone currently enrolled as undergraduate UC students, fee hikes are nothing new. But by next fall, undergraduate tuition will have gone up more than 40 percent since the 2008-09 school year. For the first time, the university would charge resident undergraduates more than $10,000 in yearly tuition --a blatant threat to the public character of the university and potentially a breaking point for the high fee-high aid model of balancing the UC budget.

Through the past several months of negotiation and discussion over cuts, the UC leadership has stressed, above all, "shared sacrifice." And we've supported that all along-in the cases when the burden was truly shared by all the different parties that compose the university. But to any knowledgeable observer, it must be infinitely clear that this is nowhere near a case of shared sacrifice, unless you interpret it as a sacrifice shared solely by the students.

Facing vocal opposition, various UC administrators have made it clear that ending the furlough program in one year is a top priority. According to the UC Office of the President memo which detailed the proposed fee hikes, "President Yudof and all of ... UCOP are working as hard as we can to end the furloughs in one year." Furloughs, it's been said, are a threat to the university's standing as a world-class research and learning institution.

Yet, at a public university established to fulfill an academic mission to the students of California, the continuous fee hikes over the past decade have hardly raised any contention at the regents' meetings. These would be the eighth and ninth fee increases for undergraduates since 2002. Some individuals may have attended the meetings and spoken against fees during the public comment period, but votes to pass fees were essentially perfunctory-going into the meeting, there was little question of whether fees would be higher the next year.

Such apathy may have been excusable or understandable in other cases, when the increase seemed more manageable. But in the midst of a recession, yearly tuition of more than $10,000 (excluding the cost of books, housing and food, among other expenses) will mark a crucial juncture for the UC system. And it could very well force students out of the university, especially those from middle-income families who receive little financial aid.

The university is facing a difficult compromise, beyond just balancing the books for this year and maintaining critical programs and services. As noted by UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, "There is no doubt that we will continue to compete with other institutions for the hiring of the country's most distinguished young faculty and in attracting top graduate students. The challenge, however, is whether or not they will continue to come to Berkeley because of our unique public character."

Accessibility and academic standards have become opposing strands in this narrative-and when accessibility disappears, so does any notion of the University of California remaining a public institution.

UC administrators plan to end the furlough program by Aug. 31, 2010, despite an additional $368 million of mandatory costs left unfunded by the state for this year. Ostensibly, ending the program will help spare the university from irreparable damage to its academic programs and, to the regents, it seems that goal is worth putting the entire weight of that budget shortfall on students' and their families' shoulders.

A 32 percent increase is too much for students to handle now, and it's too large an increase for a single year. At the very least, the Office of the President could have mitigated the effects of this painful increase by maintaining furloughs. Though we agree they are not ideal, maintaining furloughs to a lesser extent and reducing the fee hike to a more manageable amount would be the best option to deal with the shortfall.

The UCOP memo proposed only the fee increases as "permanent measures ... to stabilize the university's fiscal situation," cementing the high fee-high aid model as the budget measure of choice in the university's dealings with budget cuts.

Beyond the increase for next semester and next year, relying on this model will systematically destroy the university's standing as a public institution; it will shut out all hopes of economic diversity, essentially leaving the state with a private institution where students pay more to get less. We may be in a crisis now, but if we continue down this path, the public university which has inspired UC students, faculty and staff to forgo more lucrative offers at private institutions elsewhere could be lost permanently.


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