The strike by tens of thousands of graduate students at the University of California points to an inconvenient truth: For decades, the state has steadily cut funding for the university and expects to admit more students while charging them higher fees.
That has made it harder for UC to compete with the far better funded private universities it is trying to compete with. At the same time, like these universities, UC must rely on and adequately pay its graduate students to carry out its essential missions.
The scale of government divestments was staggering. In 1980-81, 87% of the university’s core budget came from Sacramento. Four decades later, government funding had plummeted to just 39% of the core budget. To make matters worse, much of the lost revenue has been replaced with income from tuition and fees.
This is not a recent development. Over a decade ago, then-UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau described its flagship campus as a federal university because it received more money from federal research grants and student grants than it did from the state.
“The reality is that as the state continues to disinvest in higher education, the state becomes a tertiary actor,” Birgeneau told me at the time.
Another pressure on the university is the country’s 60-year-old university master plan. It mandates that the university enrolls the top 12.5% of high school graduates.
That may have seemed reasonable at the time when the state’s population was about 16 million. But today the population is 40 million.
As a result, student enrollment has skyrocketed, more than doubling over the past four decades. In addition, more and more high school students meet the admission requirements.
We have to celebrate this. But it’s also put more pressure on the university, which has opened just one new campus — UC Merced — in the past half-century. With enrollment still under 10,000, Merced has only partially addressed the problem of overcrowding.
Complicating the university’s basic operating model is that UC enrolls proportionately far fewer graduate students than comparable private universities. As a result, it has to rely on a smaller pool of graduate students to help with research and teach sections in ever larger lecture classes.
All of this comes at a time when students are facing the highest housing costs in the country — at a university that has increasingly turned to students to help support a larger chunk of its core operating expenses. This is despite the fact that the university’s 1868 charter states that “admission and tuition are free to all residents of the state.”
On a positive note, Governor Gavin Newsom, during his first term in office, set himself apart from many of his predecessors by demanding and providing significantly greater investment in the university. However, this was made possible by the state’s record surpluses.
Now these surpluses have come to an end. It wouldn’t be surprising if Sacramento started cutting the state’s contribution to UC again. This counterproductive dynamic must be reversed, difficult as that may be, if California still wants to have a world-class university system that can compete with private institutions.
Those on the opposite sides of this ill-fated strike must settle their differences, and soon. But beyond the current conflict, Californians must also take responsibility for electing leaders who too often, in successive bouts of myopia, have chosen to drop out of the university.
Louis Freedberg, a UC Berkeley graduate anthropologist and veteran educational journalist, is a former executive director of EdSource.