De-privatize public education

By Zac Bears

Justin Surgent/Collegian

For UMass students, the implications of privatizing public education are apparent and astounding. From Coca-Cola advertisements on every drink dispenser to the increasing cost of attendance, it is clear that the state government of Massachusetts has ignored the “public” element of public education.

State funding for the University has fallen over 27 percent since 2002, when adjusted for inflation, according to The Boston Globe. The increases in the cost of attending the Commonwealth’s flagship public university are correspondingly high; the University’s financial aid office estimates that in-state students will pay $24,061 and out-of-state students $37,879 during the 2013-2014 academic year. Costs are a massive burden on families, regardless of whether they live in-state or out-of-state. UMass Professor Max Page succinctly summarized the values of the University when he said in The Boston Globe, “the belief that long-term public investment is a value rather than a burden; that working-class as well as wealthy students deserve outstanding learning facilities; and that excellent higher education should be affordable to all.”

Increasing costs run counter to those ideals. First, costs are going up because the state government refuses to make investments in reducing student fees, which shows that we do not value long-term public investment. Second, with the average income in the Commonwealth being $54,687 in 2012, according to data from the University of New Mexico, the cost of attending the flagship public University eats up almost half of a family’s annual budget, which is antithetical to the idea that working-class students deserve outstanding learning facilities. Families can reduce this burden through loans, but that just means that graduates will have lower disposable income in the future. Whether it be banking your future on student loans or paying sky-high tuition and fees, the excellent higher education of UMass surely is not affordable to all prospective students in Massachusetts.

To return to a more public model of higher education, the University must support student movements, such as Divest UMass, which wants UMass to stop investing in fossil fuel companies and eventually divest from all companies who profit from the degradation of the environment, according to The Massachusetts Daily Collegian. Universities can again be a voice for students around the U.S. who are often ignored by mainstream media and politicians. Historic divestment programs include the 1980s movement that helped to overthrow the apartheid regime in South Africa.

By bringing private entities to operate concessions and retail dining services, the University has undermined the strength of the Center for Student Business (CSB), which operates seven student-run businesses on the Amherst campus using collective management principles. The CSB has operated at UMass since the 1970s and is one of the largest networks of cooperative student-run business at any university in the United States. From the Bike Co-Op to the Greeno Sub Shop, students not only cut vegetables, cook food and repair bicycles, but also contribute directly to the management of the businesses through “participatory decision making”. To illustrate this point, the CSB website states, “The same student that sells your ‘sub’ may also have been the student who ordered the turkey, cut the cucumbers or tracked payroll for the business.”

CSB provides a strong education in business to hundreds of students each academic year. Yes, the students cook, clean and repair, but they also manage, order and catalog – skills required to run a successful small business. Students at holding jobs at the dining commons, retail dining and in many other student positions only get a chance to do the basic tasks and never get the education on the inner-workings of their employer. In contrast to the University’s position of bringing on more retail dining, such as the ISB Café and more planned Starbucks locations on campus, the University should prohibit these private institutions and support student businesses that provide a vital service and educate students at the same time. “Co-manager at People’s Market” certainly looks better on a résumé than “Barista at ISB Café”.

We, the students, are a public investment in the economic and social future of this Commonwealth. Many of us serve the University in an unpaid capacity, adding our input and hard work to organizations and events that better the Amherst campus. Note that we students continue to better both ourselves and the University, regardless of the burden of increasing costs, and will continue to do so because we love UMass. Creating a new generation of students that shows the same commitment to the University will require a fairer distribution of cost and newfound support for the students from the administration. The strongest statement the state government and the UMass administration can make to support the University is to invest in their students and the passions of those students. Let’s put public good ahead of corporate good and roll back the privatization of one of the greatest public university systems in America.

Zac Bears is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].