Letter to the Editor from Brian Williams

To reverse UC privatization, more austerity needed with student funds
May 4, 2012

We are all more or less familiar with the current situation: state funding for the University of California (UC) has been in decline while student fees have been going up. By 2005-06, state funds for UC operations as a share of UC core funds had dropped to less than 50%, down from 76% in the mid-1980s, according to a 2006 University Committee on Planning and the Budget (UCPB) report. Coinciding with this trend has been a steady increase in student fees, which in 2011 surpassed the state as a source of UC revenues, according to the Los Angeles Times. This is worrisome not only because it spells privatization, but also because student debt recently surpassed $1 trillion and now outweighs credit card debt nationally, according to the New York Times. State budget cuts are generally pointed to as the root cause of the problem. However, the other half of the problem is excessive spending decisions made at the local level. Campus growth in a context of state budget cuts will be increasingly financed by students, so decision makers on campus should be pushing for more austerity with student money, rather than growth and renovation.

Though what is and is not “excessive” will be disputed, some recent decisions stand out as clear examples of excessive spending. For instance, the recently passed Recreation Center expansion referendum, which promised an indoor juice bar, a state-of-the-art fitness lab, a massage therapy room, an indoor track and a demonstration kitchen, will raise the Recreation Center fee from $59 to $208 per quarter beginning in 2014. Another example is the 2008 switch to mandatory orientation. According to Student Life, the mandatory reform in 2008 led to an increase in orientation fee waivers from $69,050 in 2007 to $304,640 in 2010 – unsurprising since 87.64% of students in need of fee waivers for Orientation in 2011 were in the lowest income bracket (based on Estimated Family Contribution ranking).

Another area of growth is staff. In 1993, there were 2.5 faculty members for each senior manager in the UC system. Now the number of senior managers and faculty are about the same, according to data from the UC Office of the President. One of the problems with student financed growth and renovation is that it conceals the extent to which the state is depriving the UC of funds and thus reduces pressure on lawmakers to reverse this trend. As the UCPB observed in their 2006 report, “…higher education’s ability to raise fees encouraged politicians to cut it more deeply than other functions that lacked this power.” In a context of state budget cuts, essential UCR departments are increasingly turning to student fees for funding as well. Three examples are the library, Enrollment Management and the Graduate Division, which this year requested funding from the Student Services Fee Advisory Committee (SSFAC) for the first time to offset general fund cuts.

Policy objectives at the state level, such as repealing Proposition 13 and advocating legislation such as the Middle Class Scholarship Act, are one part of the solution. However, changes must also be made at the local level to reduce the costs of higher education. For starters, departments should not make excessive requests from the fee advisory committees (some are more guilty of this than others). As one SSFAC member pointed out at a recent committee hearing, “All departments ask for more than what they need…expecting it to be reduced to what they want.” This highlights a conflict of interests, since the department staff that makes the requests also has the best understanding of it own departmental priorities and what it could do without.

The fee advisory committees, such as SSFAC, have a role to play as well. Ideally, these committees would deny funds for all but the most essential, generate a surplus in committee funds, redistribute the extra funds back to the students and start reducing student fees annually. Unfortunately, this approach is contrary to the current momentum of growth and increasing reliance on student fee money, as is apparent in the SSFAC budget increase from $1,000,000 in 2010-11 to $1,500,000 in 2011-12, according to SSFAC documents. In sum, while changes at the state level are essential, reversing the privatization of higher education will also require a collective effort to minimize spending at the local level.

Brian D. Williams
Doctoral Candidate, Department of Political Science
CHASS Academic Affairs Officer 2011-2012
Student Services Fee Advisory Committee 2011-2012
University of California, Riverside

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