12:39pm

Tue June 26, 2012
Education

What the UC system can learn from Chile

Campuses have played host to several protests throughout the year, with students outraged over steep rising costs. University officials approved tuition increases of eight to sixteen percent per year for four years. It’s a continuing trend – tuition has risen by more than 300 percent over the last decade, largely the consequence of drops in state funding.

In 2011, the University of California system sustained budget cuts up to $750 million. It marked a true financial turning point for the schools. Student payments exceeded State contributions for the first time in the system’s history.

At UC Berkeley, the annual fee for a California resident is now about $12,500, more than three times what they paid a decade ago. For a nonresident, it’s $35,000 per year. This reality has propelled UC students to protest for their rights.

A similar situation in Chile offers some perspective on the University of California’s struggle to affordably serve its students. Chile has experienced its own share of demonstrations for higher education.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, which brings together the world’s wealthiest nations, only the United States exceeds Chile in the amount of money that students have to pay for their education. Over the past several years, students in both countries have had something to say about it.

Chileis a country of 17 million people, and it has one of Latin America’s strongest economies, but its distribution of income is the most unequal in the OECD, while United States inequality reach the fourth place. In Chile, the Education system has locked in social inequality rather than breaking it down.

Giorgio Jackson is one of the two main leaders of the Chilean student movement of 2011, drawing tens of thousands of people to the streets. Aside from his activism, he’s currently completing his degree in Engineering. He believes that higher education should foster knowledge that’s directly applicable to real life, thereby generating free thinking and innovation. 

Jackson’s perspective is on the Chilean System, but it recalls the original vision for the University of California. In the 1960s, it was the biggest public university in America. Fifty years later, that system is transforming.

Gibor Basri, Vice-Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion at UC Berkeley, says that at this point, states tend to disinvest from public universities, which is a larger issue in the United States about the question of common good. And says that what happens is people who aren't affluent, lose the services, and people who are, get them privately.

Same situation in Chile affect middle class families, like mine. I was not able to get financial aid, and my education cost up to seven hundred dollars per month, for a country where the average household income is just a thousand dollars per month.

Giorgio Jackson says it creates a negative ripple effect for students in struggling economies, and that people have to start to understand is that the education of others is good for us as a whole, and he says that for that reason we all must finance it, because it's important to all of us.

He also notes that that's the moment when the taxes have to play a role. And that's an issue for the Government of California, which is always in favor of lower taxes.

The Public Policy Institute of California has found that 62 percent of Californians think public education in the state is going in the wrong direction, but 52 percent are unwilling to pay higher taxes to maintain current funding. The result is thousands of UC graduates leave school in debt.

Leader Giorgio Jackson thinks there are ways to fix this, that are a little bit more fair than paying for your degree or getting a fixed interest rate loan. He says, instead, the student should pay back the State – in the case that the State pays for his education– after his studies, by a way of a tax, that is proportional to his income.

That's one way, California is taking its own steps.

Currently, at UC Berkeley, there’s a middle class access plan for families whose gross income ranges from $80,000 to $140,000 a year – it caps undergraduate fees at 15 percent of parent income, and whenever anyone pays tuition, a third of it immediately goes to into the financial aid pot. The school is also cutting costs for California’s middle class students by increasing the number of international students.

But Basri says that if the State disinvestment in Higher Education continues, it could jeopardize the original purpose of University of California.

In Chile, the government is trying to invest more state money into its universities, but politicians are having trouble finding the funds. In California, lawmakers and administrators have shown they have the will to keep public higher education accessible. The question is whether they can find a way to keep covering the costs. Until it’s sustainable, middle class students will continue struggling to pay for their education.

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