Why Aren’t Students in the U.S. Protesting Tuition, Too?
While London has been rocked by student protests over proposed tuition hikes, United States college campuses have been largely quiet. Tens of thousands of students in the UK have taken to the streets – confronting police, storming the Conservative Party headquarters, even halting the motorcade of the British monarch Prince Charles.
In fact, all across Europe students are revolting. For months, Italian students have been protesting tuition cuts and budget reforms. Greek students have not responded kindly to IMF endorsed austerity measures. And proposed cuts to the pension system have driven French students, in typical fashion, apoplectic.
Courtney Martin in The American Prospect asks: “But why are the U.K. crowds almost 500 times as robust as those in the U.S.? Why does the American movement to fight tuition hikes and funding cuts remain so anemic in comparison?”
And she answers her question: “In no small part, it's because privileged students at America's colleges and universities generally don't take the issue personally. Those who are politically active tend to set their sights on distant horizons—the poor in India, say, or the oppressed in Afghanistan.”
When the young and privileged take their “do-gooderism” abroad, they take a lot of the energy for local activism with them. Interesting rationale, but I don’t think it fully explains the discrepancy.
What best explains the dormancy on many college campuses is rooted in a national condition. The social value placed on universally accessible higher education has declined. College used to be dramatically less expensive because it was heavily subsidized by the state. The past few decades have seen “massive disinvestment”. In the accompanying time, the burden of financing higher education has shifted to the individual.
Or as Tom Hayden, one of the co-founders of Students for a Democratic Society, told me “The question for today’s student is not whether they can read Zinn, Anais Nin or Noam Chomsky, but whether they can afford to.”
The challenges they (students) face on their campuses are far different than the past and perhaps more profound. Tuition costs at UM in 1960 were one hundred dollars, and I can’t remember if that was for a semester or an entire year. So I could obtain my degree, edit the paper, go south to the civil rights movement for two years, return and enter graduate school, and never feel I was falling behind in the competitive economic rat-race…A student today falls tens of thousands of dollars in debt, even after holding two part-time jobs, a burden which limits their career choices. Dropping out for social activism brings competitive disadvantage.
Public higher education is no longer seen as serving the broader social good. And if you can afford college—likely through high indebtedness—the four, five, or six years you’re there are spent making yourself more employable. Colleges aren’t enabling greater democratic citizenship anymore, they’re producing wage earners. There is a trend towards privatization and commoditization that’s quite troubling.
In 2009 the University of Virginia received a mere 8 percent of its funding from the state of Virginia, down from nearly 30 percent from a quarter century ago. At the University of Wisconsin, only 19 percent comes from state dollars also down from 30 percent a decade ago. And at the University of Iowa, state appropriations have dropped by 35 percentage points since 1980. For comparison, since 1982 college tuition in the US has increased by 439 percent, more than four times the rate of inflation. Healthcare costs have risen 250 percent during the same period.
Students in the UK were protesting more than tuition cuts. Writing in the London Review of Books, Stefani Collini notes that:
Essentially, Browne is contending that we should no longer think of higher education as the provision of a public good, articulated through educational judgment and largely financed by public funds (in recent years supplemented by a relatively small fee element). … Britain's universities, it is proposed, should henceforth operate in accordance with the tenets of perfect competition theory.
Nina Power, one of the student protestors, wrote in The Guardian that “It was a protest against the narrowing of horizons; a protest against Lib Dem hypocrisy; a protest against the increasingly utilitarian approach to human life that sees degrees as nothing but "investments" by individuals, and denies any link between education and the broader social good.”
In this light it’s not difficult to understand why the protests in Europe are so large and largely non-existent in the U.S. British students are fighting a transformation of their society that has long taken hold in the US.