UC Berkeley students protest fee hikes

By Rachel Gross

Wednesday may have been the more eventful day of the University of California’s Board of Regents Meeting — marked by several hundred student protesters, arrests and pepper-spraying by police — but the meat of the meeting’s decisions came on Thursday.

The Regents, meeting at UC’s Mission Bay campus in San Francisco, increased student fees for the fourth time in three years. On UC President Mark Yudof’s recommendation, the Regents raised student fees 8%. Starting next fall, students will pay $11,124 in fees each semester — up $828 from this year.

The fee hike is expected to raise $116 million in revenue, which will go toward what the university projects will be a more than one-billion-dollar funding gap for 2011-12. That gap includes unfunded over-enrollments and re-starting university contributions to the UC pension plan, according to Patrick Lenz, the university’s Vice President for the Budget.

But as witnessed by Wednesday’s outrage, when 13 protesters were arrested, the decision did not go without debate. “Shame on us” for raising fees without looking at other financial options, said Regent Eddie Island during the discussion preceding the vote. “I’m disappointed that when we are faced with tough decisions to make, we only get one choice.”

In the five years Island has been on the board, student fees have risen more than 50%. The Regents had discussed alternative ways to raise funding on Wednesday, including increasing the proportion of out-of-state students who attend the university, further tightening operations and seeking more private funds, according to The Chronicle.

Regent Paul Wachter called the fee situation “heartbreaking,” while Regent George Marcus echoed the shared sentiment that “No one here likes this.” Nevertheless, it had to be done, said Marcus, who initially came to the meeting planning to vote down the increase but was convinced by the time he voted that the move was financially necessary. The final vote was 15-to-5.

Traditionally, middle-class undergraduates have borne the brunt of rising fees. But while the university counts 181,000 undergrads across nine campuses, graduate students may be especially hard-hit this year. At the meeting, Latisha Chisholm-Duper, a student and the Graduate Assembly Chair of UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare, spoke on behalf of her campus against the continuance of a $4,000 professional fee — on top of the overall increase — instituted for social welfare graduate students last year.

“It’s outrageous,” she said. “We’re only going to make $40,000 when we get out of here, and the cost of the two-year program is $80,000. We’re trained to support the most vulnerable part of the population — and now we’re not going to be able to afford to do that.” Regents voted at the meeting to uphold professional fees for multiple campuses.

UC President Yudof answers questions about the fee increase and the UC pension plan.

Yet for some students, there is a silver lining to the hikes — and its colors are blue and gold.

To compensate for the increase, Yudof’s signature Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan (proposed and approved in 2009 to cover all system-wide fees for students whose families made less than $60,000 a year) will be expanded for the second time. Now, students whose families make under $80,000 will be exempt from fees, while those whose families make between $80,000 and $120,000 will not have their fees raised for the first year of the increase.

With the expansion, only 45% of students will feel the hike, which Yudof described as a necessary move to keep the university from “tumbling toward mediocrity” in an open letter on November 8. One concern raised at the meeting was that the expansion will not help AB 540 students (those who are undocumented), who will continue to qualify for in-state tuition fees — as upheld by a California Supreme Court ruling Monday — but who are still ineligible to receive financial aid.

Yudof said at a press conference that the university intends to keep fee levels as they are, but “there are no guarantees” that fees will not be raised again next year.

As expected, the Regents also voted to change the historical language of “university education fees” — established by the Regents in 1970 — to simply “tuition.” While having no practical effect, the change is symbolically significant: it acknowledges that student tuition fees, rather than state funding, are now the major source of finances for university operations. The Daily Californian has the full story  here.

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