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How Students Landed on the Front Lines of Class War

University students find themselves victimized by the same neoliberal agenda that has created the current economic crisis.
 
 
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 The deliberate pepper-spraying by campus police of nonviolent protesters at UC Davis provoked national outrage. But the horrific incident must not cloud the real question: What led comfortable, bright, middle-class students to join the Occupy protest movement against income inequality and big-money politics in the first place?

The University of California system raised tuition by more than  9 percent this year, and the California State University system upped tuition by 12 percent. The UC system is seriously contemplating a humongous  16 percent tuition increase for fall 2012. This year, for the first time, the amount families pay in UC tuition  will exceed state contributions to the university system.

University students, who face tuition hikes and state cuts to public education, find themselves victimized by the same neoliberal agenda that has created the current economic crisis, and which profoundly endangers democratic values.

The ideal that California embraced in its 1960  master plan for higher education, that it should be inexpensive and open to all Californians, is being jettisoned without much debate. The master plan exemplified the thinking on education and democracy typical of Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson. In 1786, Jefferson  wrote from Europe to a friend:

Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils [of tyranny], and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance. …

That is, Jefferson believed that the alternative to publicly funded education was the rise of an oppressive oligarchy that would manipulate the ignorant majority.

While the bad economy and the peculiarities of California governance have provoked the state’s budget crisis, the defunding of public higher education has unfolded progressively across the country for two decades. From 1987 through 2007, state support  declined by about 9 percent overall per student across the United States; for the flagship research campuses, the decline was around 13 percent. The last  three years have seen especially deep cuts. 

The increasing privatization of higher education is part and parcel of the neoliberal agenda, which seeks to subordinate everything to soulless markets. As  Henry A. Giroux writes: “In England and the United States, universities and businesses are forming stronger ties; the humanities are being underfunded; student tuition is rising at astronomical rates; knowledge is being commodified; and research is valued through the lens of an audit culture.”

Market fundamentalism is notoriously more interested in process than in outcome, in “efficiency” than in higher ethical values. Those who might applaud the end of the state universities and their transformation into private institutions neglect their essential role in the formation of cultural capital and in promoting social mobility, not to mention in keeping America strong against global competitors (the number of Ph.Ds produced annually is a common index of competitiveness).

The assault on publicly funded higher education is wrapped up in the discontents that provoked the Occupy Wall Street movement. Inexpensive state universities are central to the ability of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to move up in the world. The United States used to be known as a society where those at the bottom could hope to get ahead, and where being born with a silver spoon in your mouth was no guarantee of lifetime prosperity. Now,  upward mobility has gotten harder, the rich more often stay rich, and Europe is the land of opportunity. European state support for institutions of higher education is key to that mobility. The United States of America, born in a rejection of an aristocracy by birth, is increasingly a land of hereditary oligarchs.