IREF proposal violates student fee policy guidelines

Illustration of a small person standing before a giant laptop with floating app emoticons and a stack of cash laid on it.
Aishwarya Jayadeep/Senior Staff

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Securing access to essential instructional technology has been an ongoing battle at UC Berkeley. After the Student Technology Fee failed to pass in April 2021, administrators proposed alternative funding through a Miscellaneous Student Fee. The student representatives of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Student Service Fees, or CACSSF, unanimously opposed this, maintaining that campus should pay for licenses that are core to education, not students. Now, campus is proposing the Instructional Resilience and Enhancement Fee, or IREF, which would cover software licenses, tech-related services and 29 employee salaries. If the IREF passes, students will face an additional $132 semesterly fee to pay for items that should be coming out of campus’s existing budget. This strategy violates student fee policy and, in the view of the Committee on Student Fees, which has advisory oversight of each student fee type, represents a continued effort to wrongly shift the cost of core learning materials onto students.

The IREF is a Course Materials and Services Fee, or CMSF, proposed by campus administrators. CMSFs cover materials or services necessary to provide “supplemental educational experiences” relating to the “instructional activities of a course.” Students pay CMSFs for courses that have special costs associated with them, such as STEM courses that require specialized equipment. CMSF policy guidelines prescribe that they only apply to students enrolled in the applicable course, may not be used to cover “normal instructional” or “general operational” costs and should not exceed the average cost of a textbook. The IREF violates all of these guidelines.

The IREF’s underlying logic is contradictory. Since CMSFs can only be charged to students “enrolled in the applicable course,” the apparent rationale behind the proposal is that the items it covers apply to all courses, so all students should be charged a CMSF to pay for them. If the IREF’s costs do apply to all courses, then we assert that they would certainly constitute “normal instructional costs” — what higher standard is there for “normal” than a cost that applies to every classroom? Precedent supports this interpretation, as CMSFs have only ever applied to specific courses at UC Berkeley. Under this interpretation, the IREF assesses fees for normal instructional costs, which policy guidelines explicitly exclude CMSFs from covering.

In an attempt to defend the IREF from this classification, the proposal’s authors have argued that the items it includes are not normal instructional costs because “as the campus shifts back to in-person instruction,” software such as Zoom Pro and Kaltura will enhance “some courses, but not all.” While we disagree with their reasoning, we do agree that some of the IREF’s items are not broadly applicable because they are ostensibly course specific, as is the case with Matlab and Mathematica.

This highlights the core contradiction between two essential elements of the IREF’s logic: 1) The IREF is a CMSF charged to all students, so the items it covers must apply to all courses, and 2) The IREF covers course-specific items, and its authors claim that some items won’t apply to all courses, which they argue should exempt them from classification as “normal instructional costs.”
Regardless of which argument its authors use, the IREF assesses CMSFs in a way that directly violates policy. If the IREF benefits all classes, then it violates policy because CMSFs cannot cover normal instructional costs; if not, then it violates CMSF policy because students should not pay CMSFs that don’t apply to them.

While some items included in the IREF could be validly re-proposed as normal CMSFs applying only to the courses they benefit, those that are normal instructional or general operating costs are ineligible for coverage by CMSFs, regardless of whom they charge. The clearest examples are bCourses, Zoom and Google Workspace, which continue to be integral to campus collaboration, communication and instruction. A recent student survey conducted by the IREF’s proponents underscores this reality. With nearly 100% of respondents considering all three products “essential” or “very useful,” the message is clear: These services are core to the educational experience on campus and should constitute normal instructional costs necessary to campus’s general operation.

Though policy urges that increases in CMSFs should be “moderate and gradual,” the IREF’s additional charge would represent a 496% CMSF increase for undergraduates and a 4,271% increase for graduate students, a far cry from the “moderate and gradual” increase that guidelines call for. Moreover, policy specifies that “the maximum fee should not exceed the average cost of a textbook,” which was $81 in 2018, making the IREF 63% more than the maximum allowable CMSF amount.

Unfortunately, campus’s failure to budget for IREF items presents a dilemma between supporting a deeply flawed proposal and risking even higher financial consequences for students. Without a compromise, the IREF’s failure would necessitate that students purchase personal software licenses, which may cause higher per-student costs relative to the IREFs. CSF and other student leaders will propose a compromise calling for: course-specific materials to be covered under normal CMSFs; CACSSF to consider using its reserves to cover a significant portion of the IREF’s costs for the next one to two years; campus to shoulder the remaining costs not covered by CACSSF reserves; and campus to find a sustainable way to fit core instructional technologies into its budget.

While we sympathize with the financial challenges that administrators are facing and understand that the increasing cost of education may warrant creative financing methods, we cannot support a paradigm shift that places an undue burden upon already financially distressed students, nor can we support a proposal that flagrantly contradicts policy guidelines. Doing so sets a dangerous precedent wherein administrators may flout policy rules designed to protect students. It’s our sincerest hope that the counterproposal described above opens dialogue for compromise and ultimately helps students and administrators build a long-term solution that supports high-quality, affordable education at UC Berkeley.

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Franklin McKenzie is the Committee on Student Fees’ representative for the Course Materials Fee Committee. Kelly Han is the external vice chair for the Committee on Student Fees. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.