Students and workers rallied on October 13 at the University of Texas at Austin to demand that the State of Texas increase public investment in higher education, so that a quality, affordable higher education is available to all who seek one.
Because state funding has not kept up with the need for higher education, public universities like UT have increased tuition, putting many students in a financial hole before they ever graduate. “We’re being set up to fail by these cuts to higher education,” said Bernadino Lucian Villasenor, an undergraduate at UT, referring to the debt that many students must take on to pay for college. “Many of us are leaving here with high debt and no jobs.”
Less state funding has also led to staff layoffs, which have resulted in fewer student services. “Last year when the governor told state agencies to cut their budgets, UT laid off hundreds of staff who provided essential services such as instruction, tutoring, advising, and housekeeping,” said Jim Branson, lead organizer for the Texas State Employees Union, which organized the rally. “Classes were eliminated. It was harder for students to get classes they needed to graduate. Education suffered”
The rally was one event in a statewide campaign organized by TSEU to build a movement of workers and students that can restore funding cuts to state universities and increase the state’s investment in the higher education of its young people.
The trend toward lowering the state’s financial investment in public higher education has been going on for decades, but took a new twist in 2003 when the state was facing a $10 billion shortfall. Instead of providing the money needed to keep up with rising enrollment, the state decided to deregulate higher education and allow public universities to set their own tuition rates. Since then, average tuition and fees for a full-time student taking 15 credit hours have increased 83 percent.
At the time that tuition was deregulated, the state told its public universities to start acting like a business, which led UT and other research institutions to put greater emphasis on funding research that could be commercialized and attracting mega-star researchers who could attract research grants.
Educating students, especially undergraduates, became an afterthought. As tuition and fees increased, universities relied more on non-tenure track instructors, who received few benefits and worked on a contingency basis from semester to semester.
Then when the bottom of the economy fell out in 2008, things got much worse. By 2010, the state was facing a budget shortfall caused by the recession and the resulting drop in tax revenue. Gov. Perry mandated that state agencies and universities cut their budgets at first by 5 percent and then by another 3 percent.
As a result, 3 percent of state paid positions at Texas’ higher education institutions were eliminated. At three of the state’s flagship universities, UT, Texas A&M, and the University of Houston, 900 state-paid jobs were cut.
When the Texas Legislature convened in 2011, the effects of the recession were at their high water mark. One estimate placed the budget shortfall for the next two-year budget cycle at $27 billion. Instead of taking a balanced approach to addressing the shortfall, the Legislature relied heavily on funding cuts, which meant a 15 percent cut in higher education funding.
As a result, more layoffs at public universities are on the horizon. William Powers, UT’s president, has said that there could be as many as 600 more positions eliminated.
Speaking at the rally, Jennifer Cole, a housekeeper at UT and a TSEU member, explained the impact that these cuts will have on the university. “During the last round of layoffs, those of us who kept our jobs had a difficult time keeping up with the increased workload. We kept falling further and further behind,” Cole said. “If there are more layoffs, we won’t be able to provide you with the services you deserve.”
In addition to reduced services, working-class students who rely on financial aid will have a harder time getting it because the Legislature cut state funding for financial aid by 15 percent.
“State funding for higher education is shrinking, and at some point it’s going to cause a crisis in this state because more and more jobs require a higher education degree,” said Derrick Osobase, TSEU’s political director. “The problem is a structural problem. The state simply does not generate enough revenue to provide essential services. We need to raise more revenue.”