Yesterday, I proposed that the federal government should guarantee the right to post-secondary education. Most of my reasoning also applies to public education funding more generally, and especially to efforts to make public education more affordable. One such effort is the ongoing protest against the Puerto Rican government’s decision to cut funding to the University of Puerto Rico and raise tuition. The students at the university have been on strike since April 21st.
On May 24th, the Los Angeles Times reported:
Students are reportedly barricaded behind campus gates under heavy police watch at 10 of the university’s 11 campuses. Supporters have been hurling food and water over campus fences to reach the students, resulting in violent confrontations with police. In one widely reported incident, police beat and arrested a man who was attempting to deliver food to his son, a striking student.
Media reports say support for the strike is widespread on the island, but university officials disagree, saying it is being led by a small minority. Last year, discontent with the economic policies of Republican Gov. Luis Fortuño — who sought to lay off thousands of government workers — led to an island-wide national protest.
Last week, a New York Daily News article expanded on the financial woes underlying both the attempted tuition increase and the protest:
Even before the Wall Street financial collapse, 45% of the island’s population was living below the poverty level.
Since then, tourism and manufacturing, Puerto Rico’s main sources of income, have been devastated, and so have government revenues. More than 20,000 public employees have been laid off the past year by Fortuño as he sought to close a huge deficit. The unemployment rate jumped to 17.2% in April, while the pension system for public employees is nearly bankrupt.
For generations, a University of Puerto Rico education was regarded as a sure way to escape poverty. Sixty percent of UPR’s students, for example, have family incomes of less than $20,000 a year.
Since the university was largely funded through a 9.6% set-aside of all government tax revenues, it was able to maintain low tuition, about $2,000 annually, and even provide scholarships for standouts. It also enjoyed relative autonomy from the government.
But Fortuño’s administration has promised Wall Street bondholders that it will make students pay a bigger share of the university’s operating costs, downsize government and initiate more public-private partnerships.
As part of that plan, Fortuño wants to rewrite the higher education law.
Students oppose the reductions in scholarships as well as a new $1,200 student fee the university wants to impose. They fear that a new education law will usher in privatization efforts. Their supporters in the Puerto Rican legislature are urging instead new revenue streams, either through increasing the island’s low corporate tax from 2.5% to 10% or through video lottery games, with the money earmarked for higher education.
Today’s post at Feministing.com summarizes the possible outcome:
If privatization of the University occurs, it would virtually make attending the school a financial impossibility for the 60% of students living under the poverty line.
In short, the University of Puerto Rico is an example of the real need for public higher education, and affordability is central to its function. Let’s hope this protest works.