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We Need Economic Democracy on Campuses in Miami and Across the Nation

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NPR published an article Saturday, June 30th, detailing the issues facing students and showing how the maintenance of the 3.4 percent interest rate for another year is not enough to relieve students from the stress they are feeling. In the article, they correctly point out the many cuts and changes to government aid programs that place pressure on students, but what the article fails to mention is the fact that students are being pressured from the other side as well. They are being squeezed into submission and the process is turning college from something enjoyable to a chore, while market forces turn higher education from an option to a necessity. While Congress cuts federal spending on higher education and want to make aid programs more limited, colleges and universities are raising tuition and fees. Some of this is done to make up for lost state funding, some of it to cover higher costs incurred by the school, but, in the case of some universities, the majority of the money goes to administration costs, including bloated administrative salaries. Another large chunk of that money goes to paying "eminent scholars," who may or may not teach any classes but are still paid six-figure salaries just for saying that they are part of the university community. There is certainly a way to alleviate some of this obscene spending, but so long as those who benefit the most from bloated salaries are the ones deciding how the money is spent relief will never be seen. It is ridiculous to assume that those with the power to decide how much money they should make would simply give up that power. Especially when it is done with unquestioned, unaccountable authority. They need only justify these decisions to their peers, who also benefit.

These cuts to education are, by-and-large, unreasonable. The whole of society benefits when more people have a university education and when that education is in what they want to learn rather than what they are told is important. These cuts to financial aid and funding combined with increases in tuition and fees do little more than price people out of an education. When we see education as a commodity, as something with a market, as something competitive, we are hurting ourselves. The cure for cancer could be formulating in the brains of the next generation of students who will not be able to afford an education after high school. The next great economist could be working in a dead-end job right now, unable to go to school because they have to support themselves and their family and have no time for school. Sure, there are still scholarships, but to a large extent students aren't told about them, or they are unable to get them because of larger structural problems with primary and secondary education stemming from unequal access to a quality secondary education, which can include poor teaching, poor counseling, lack of resources and problems from communities and homes, which carry over in to the school. These problems are further exacerbated when these students are left out, because those communities suffer from a lack of return. Even when scholarships are available, they are difficult to get -- especially ones that pay for all or most of your education. Unless you are an athlete, it is very unlikely that you will get a full ride.

For the lucky students who are able to go to a college or a university, there is no recourse from this -- no voice in the process of deciding how the budget is spent, or how their fate is decided. Instead, it is done by the administration, who is overpaid and not taxed with actually dealing with the outcome of their decisions. Sure, there is student government, where students vote for a couple of people to make decisions that affect the entire student body. Much like their state and national counterparts, however, student governments are largely unaccountable and able to act regardless of what their platform for election was. At Florida International University in Miami, the current student government violated the university constitution during the election process, successfully petitioned against a new election, and then voted in favor of a 15 percent tuition increase (the maximum allowed by the state) after campaigning for months that they would vote against all tuition increases. Sounds like good politics.

It is clear that the students and those who make decisions that affect them the most have little in common, including common interests. This necessarily divides the university system into two classes: those who make the decisions and those who are affected by them. In this latter group, I would include professors, because they too are feeling the pressures of an underfunded university system. Classes are being cut, options are being limited and the situation is being rearranged so they earn less money for doing the same amount of work. So long as this two-class system remains in place, and students, faculty and staff are divided without one voice, the university system will remain a playground for the rich to get richer.

We are seeing the disenfranchisement of this generation show through the various Occupy groups on campuses across the country, with the re-creation of Students for a Democratic Society, and with the growth of Students Toward a New Democracy. We are seeing students support not only their needs, but also the needs of both faculty and staff when they need it. The powerless class is beginning to see the way they are being manipulated, and the beginnings of a new system are being formed. What students need, what the universities need, and what societies need are the same: true democracy. Those who are affected by these decisions should have an equal say in the way the decisions are dealt with. We should not be trusting the fates of our university systems, or our society, to a select few, but rather we should be asking society as a whole what ought to be done when faced with cuts coming from above.