The UC Regents meeting had a little of everything this week: UCR students came up with a new way to fund the university, a long list of new salary increases was released , UCSF asked to quit the system, a retired professor was fired, protesters disrupted the meeting, Regents met behind closed doors, and police attacked protesters who were using books as shields.
What does it all mean? Perhaps, it all adds up to the demise of the modern Western social contract. Without being too dramatic, we are seeing an attempt to resist the destruction of the central institutions of modernity: the university, the public commons, and the welfare state. Although it was once taken for granted that everyone should sacrifice for the common public good, this social contract has been broken, and now some are fighting to maintain it, while others are pushing us forward to a more premodern mode of social organization.
A case in point is the UCR “Student Investment Proposal,” which argues that students should pay no tuition while they are in school, but once they graduate, they should pay 5% of their income for 20 years. At first, this appears to be an elegant solution, but it really represents the final privatization of the public university. Instead of relying on state and federal funds and a common tax base, the new system would rely on private citizens to fund their own education through the use of a non-progressive flat tax. Just as UCSF wants to break its ties with the state and the rest of the UC system, this new funding model would allow students to “pay for their own education,” and would get rid of messy things like financial aid and family contributions.
Under this neoliberal payment program, the students working at Starbucks would be paying the same percent of their income to the UC as the students working for hedge funds. Of course, the university would have a strong incentive to only accept wealthy students, since these students have the highest chance of earning a big paycheck in the future. Likewise, there would be no reason to support programs in the humanities and social sciences if the big earners will all go to law school, medical school, and business school. In short, the student proposal is a private solution to a public problem, and yet we are told that the Office of the President will take it seriously.
It is indeed telling that a student group has come up with such a regressive funding model. We can read this as a sign of the way the backlash against the public good has been so successful that even good-intentioned people present anti-social ideas as if they were progressive. While the program does insist that the state should spend 2% of its budget on the UC each year, it does not say how the UC should use this money. Instead, we are told that students will pay for their own education out of their own future earnings. Of course, this model assumes that these students will have a future income in a world where we no longer have any sense of the common good.