Student occupations: the last line of defense against rising tuition

If what you’re doing isn’t working, try something different

Wheeler Hall, University of California, Berkeley. (Wikimedia Commons)

Wheeler Hall, University of California, Berkeley, where students have staged multiple occupations. (Wikimedia Commons)

At the height of the occupation, more than 100 students sat in Wheeler Hall at the University of California Berkeley. That number has since fallen to just 20 or 30, according to a Nov. 23 LA Times article, but the protests are still on.

This student protest flare up was caused by the decision to increase tuition by at least five per cent per year for five years.

This increase, which will amount to more than 28 per cent, was first proposed in 2009. That increase was marked for 32 per cent, but students rejected the increase with occupations, protests and riots. In 2012, California Governor Gerry Brown urged university trustees not to make the increase, and they complied.

But now the plans are back on the table, and students have organized in protest. There are plans to spread their campaign to other campuses, organize mass walkouts and march past high schools.

Back here in B.C., our tuition increases are capped at two per cent per year, and while that figure only outpaces inflation by about a quarter percentage point, it still has the “slow creep” effect that needs to be addressed.

Nearly every school in B.C. has opted to take that full two per cent tuition increase every year since the limit was introduced. With falling government funding, I almost understand, but eventually that two per cent won’t be enough to cover the gap and an alternative source of funds will need to be tapped.

And just because tuition has only risen approximately two per cent beyond inflation since 2005 doesn’t change that tuition and fees will have tripled by 2017 since 1990, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

While the two per cent increase limit does a little to stop the bleeding, it does nothing to address the gaping wound that came before.

It might also be worth considering the pace of these increases. Students are typically at a university for four years. As many of you know, that’s barely enough time to get in, get your degree, do some extracurriculars and get out – add activism and advocacy on top of that? It’s tough, especially when no single student really bears the full brunt of tuition increases. Tuition is what it is when you enroll and once you’re finished school, you might be too busy working to care, but either way you’re disconnected from the campus and people you’d be advocating for if you did decide to take the issue on.

We might be getting some help on that front (then again we might just be spinning our wheels). The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) recently launched the “It’s No Secret” campaign, which says it’s a “call to action for Canadians of all political affiliations concerned for our country’s future” and points to tuition, student debt and youth unemployment as the key issues.

Aside from asking for email addresses for whatever future campaign plans they have, CFS is also organizing meetings with MPs to discuss the issues.

While a unified voice for students sounds like a good idea, CFS seems like it’s often unable to reach the difference makers and reverse some of the damage that has been done. Back at Berkeley, it sounds like that’s something those students would understand.

“Students are constantly dismissed at regents meetings,” sophomore Jake Soiffer told the UC Berkeley student newspaper the Daily Californian. “We’re here because we’ve tried the normal routes, and they didn’t work.”

CFS is still trying the “normal routes,” and while it might not be time for students to line the halls of our universities in protest, it is time to stop trying the same old things and spinning our wheels.