‘Do you value higher education?’: UC students lobby in Sacramento for more state funding

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Rigel Robinson/Courtesy

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Organized in four separate Gig Car Share cars, 13 UC Berkeley students traveled to Sacramento early Tuesday morning to continue lobbying for increased state funding for the UC system.

The ASUC Office of the External Affairs Vice President, or EAVP, has been organizing travels to Sacramento nearly weekly, according to EAVP Chief of Staff Sarah Abdeshahian, since the UC Board of Regents postponed the original tuition hike vote in January. Along with UC Berkeley students, there were students from UC Riverside, UC Santa Cruz and UC Santa Barbara at the Capitol pushing for more state funding.

Students first spoke during the public comment portion of the California Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance hearing, then attended numerous lobbying meetings throughout the day with state senators and Assembly members. Campus student representatives were in Sacramento from 9 a.m. to about 3:30 p.m., from the beginning of the subcommittee hearing until after the last lobbying meeting.

“I study political science. I want to be like you one day, but I can’t do that if I can’t graduate,” said ASUC Senator-elect Amir Wright at the subcommittee hearing. “I ask the subcommittee to remember that budgets are statements of values. How much do you value higher education?”

‘The Legislature’s basket’: Hoping for higher funding

According to ASUC EAVP Rigel Robinson, the weight of the decision rests with the state Senate and Assembly, not Gov. Jerry Brown. Robinson also does not expect Brown’s May budget revision to include more money for higher education.

This is not the first time campus students have gone to Sacramento to lobby for more state funding. Students from across the UC system attended another California Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance meeting in late February, lobbying for a state funding increase.

“All of our eggs are in the Legislature’s basket,” Robinson said.

The entire budget proposal was first introduced at the September 2017 Board of Regents meeting, and it included an in-state tuition hike, an out-of-state tuition hike and an increase to the Student Services Fee. As of April 26, the UC Office of the President, or UCOP, has tabled tuition hike discussions in favor of further advocacy for increased state funding. 

Students have been protesting the hikes since their introduction, even though the board passed a 3.5 percent out-of-state tuition increase at the March regents meeting. Students have been pushing for a budget plan of $140 million that includes a buyout of the tuition hike, which they also took to the offices of individual senators and Assembly members to discuss.

Assemblymember Jose Medina, D-Riverside, circulated a letter March 12 detailing the same budget request, which has been signed by 36 other Assembly members. The request calls for $105 million of ongoing funding to go toward buying out the proposed tuition increase and adding resources in lieu of student enrollment growth, as well as a one-time fund of $35 million to address infrastructure on UC campuses.

Advocacy from across and within the UC system

UC Riverside freshman Lennin Kuri, who gave testimony during the hearing’s public comment, noted that UC Riverside students have not been present at many state budget hearings, but they “got tired of not being represented.”

“We got tired of not being represented at this level, so we took the initiative,” Kuri said. “They make (budget hearings) inaccessible for students — literally 9 a.m. at the Sacramento Capitol building.”

Although no students from UC Santa Barbara spoke during the subcommittee’s hearing, students were in lobbying meetings throughout the day, accompanied by UC Santa Barbara Chancellor Henry Yang and Director of Governmental Relations Kirsten Deshler, according to Kristen Hsu, external vice president of statewide affairs for the Associated Students of UC Santa Barbara.

Currently, UC officials are working with students to connect with state legislators, according to UCOP spokesperson Stephanie Beechem, who said UC officials believe increasing state funding would “eliminate the need for a tuition increase.”

Tuition is not the only issue that has been tabled, however — Beechem confirmed in an email that the in-state tuition and Student Services Fee hike delays also delayed the vote on the overall system budget. This means individual campuses and the UC system as a whole are unable to plan for the next academic year because the total revenue is unclear, Beechem said in an email.

“The University of California applauds UC students for their ongoing advocacy in support of funding for the UC system,” Beechem said in an email. “These student-led advocacy efforts, done in concert with UC faculty, all 10 campuses and stakeholders throughout California, aim to secure $140 million in additional state funds beyond the 3 percent base budget increase included in the governor’s January budget.”

UC officials have also been working with six student UC Advocacy Network ambassadors to encourage student involvement in the lobbying operations, according to Beechem.

This Sacramento trip was part of the “Fund the UC” effort by Rise California and the UC Student Association, or UCSA. Also present at the meeting were UCSA President Judith Gutierrez and UC Student Regent-designate Devon Graves, who said UC officials are “grateful” for student advocacy around increasing both state and federal funding.

“We’re hopeful,” Graves said. “Students have been such a huge support this year that the university’s hopeful that their advocacy work … is going to result in us getting full funding for the university.”

‘Tangible impact’: Moving forward with advocacy

No more lobby groups are being planned by the EAVP’s office, but Robinson noted that UCSA will continue to mobilize students to lobby at Senate and Assembly hearings through the summer. Both Robinson and Abdeshahian will be returning to Sacramento on Wednesday, however, to show support for the four regents who will be confirmed this year after being appointed in 2017.

Wright and ASUC Senator-elect Anna Whitney both spoke at the hearing as well. Whitney noted that while she ran on platforms focusing on environmentalism and sustainability, it was important for her to advocate for issues that all students were affected by, such as tuition increases.

“I was elected to champion sustainability, but I also think people trust me to advocate on these student-centered issues that are very core to everyone — including people who care about sustainability,” Whitney said.

Wright added that his new platform as an incoming ASUC senator gives him more outreach than an individual student has and that he will have his entire office to use and mobilize for events such as this.

Individual students provide their perspectives to state legislators, Robinson said, leading to the student’s story being repeated by legislators and used to inform their policy decisions. Student narratives are also often more impactful than “arbitrary facts,” Abdeshahian said.

“Varsha Sarveshwar has become a household name to the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance,” Robinson said, alluding to ASUC “Fund the UC” campaign manager Varsha Sarveshwar. “Individual students are having a tangible impact on the budget process of a state that is literally the sixth-biggest economy in the world. That’s unreal to anyone who thinks they can’t have an impact or that these politics are bigger than them.”

Sakura Cannestra is the executive news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @SakuCannestra.