BY WENDY BROWN
Wendy Brown is Class of 1936 First Professor of Political Science at the University of California at Berkeley and a member of the Berkeley Faculty Association. The following is the text of her speech today at the NO to the Grad Tax walkout rally in Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza.
It is hard to exaggerate the devastating effects of this tax bill on higher education—access to it, provisioning it, sustaining it, acquiring it. The combination of taxing ghost tuition payments and eliminating the tax deduction for interest on student loans threatens to place higher education out of reach for any but the well off. It threatens to return us to a time when universities were the exclusive purview of a leisured class
How did we come to this pass? Where are we? It is a commonplace that university tuition has grown scandalously high, including in public universities and especially our professional schools. Much of this is due to state disinvestment driven by a mentality in which education shifted from a public good to a private investment in one’s individual future. The only solution to the impossibility of charging grad students these scandalous tuitions was to effectively cancel tuition in PhD programs, via tuition waivers and tuition remission schemes. This solution, we should note, was not sustainable, as Divisions, departments and other entities have grown increasingly desperate in their efforts to scrape together graduate support funds, including for the tuition waivers. And, the more that public universities increased non-resident tuition to try to milk cash from undergrads, the more onerous became the burden of sustaining graduate programs—UC had to foot its own bill, figure out how to pay itself for you, and finds itself consistently robbing Peter to pay Paul. The task of funding graduate students in every field has been a mounting crisis for two decades, and UC has been pillaging every purse (grants, departments, endowed chair funds) and trying to turf every expense (health insurance, child care) in an effort to manage it. Meanwhile standards of existence for grad students continue to plummet: no one needs to tell you how hard it is to survive in the Bay Area (let alone thrive as a student, researcher, thinker, teacher) on less than $30,000 a year.
And now comes the ghost tax: charging impoverished grad students for tuition they were never intended to pay, never received income to pay, don’t pay and can’t pay. This is akin to charging property tax for bits of sidewalk or space under a bridge squatted by the homeless. It is bad enough that anyone would be taxed for waived tuition: but the policy will also boot most students into a new tax bracket—one you’ll be lucky to see in your first post-PhD position.
Then there’s the proposed elimination of a tax deduction for student loan interest payments, skyrocketing the cost of those loans across the loan life.
All of this is a form of what economists call rent-seeking (extracting income from non-productive sources) from the poor, and all of it is made more egregious by the newly proposed added tax deduction for “pass through income”–money that billionaires and corporations make on certain kinds of investments.
In short, this bill proposes massive wealth retention for the very rich and for corporations, erosion of health care access, a devastating increase in the federal deficit….and an attack on students and universities, on education, knowledge and research.
Of course, it is also sheer lunacy: it will literally blow up the pipeline of future teachers, researchers, inventors, engineers, software designers, lawyers, medical professionals. It will threaten labs and research teams in every field, depleting them of the grad student researchers they require. And it may finish off programs where graduate funding was already stretched to the breaking point, especially those in the humanities and arts. Thus while it might satisfy Trump’s educated-elite-hating base and its antipathies to what they regard as the liberal leanings of American universities, it is also sheer folly for the “America Firsters.” It pretty much guarantees a future of “America last” as it guts the minimal requirements for producing the advanced technical and professional knowledge that the 21st century requires, not to mention the critical knowledge required for averting total disaster—planetary, political, economic, social, and cultural.
Still, of all the wrongs represented by this proposal, none is more odious than the inequality it will intensify. Public universities were designed to provide quality higher education to the masses along with research in the public interest. They were built and funded on the principle that both are public goods—an educated public and research for the public. Once this principle began to shred and privatization took hold, tuition waivers have been vital in keeping public university doors open to non-elite students–undergraduates and graduates alike. This bill proposes to slam that door shut … by taxing students on tuition that shouldn’t be there in the first place.
So is this how the sad story of privatizing higher education ends? First universities lose public funding, then they lose their public mission, and then their capacity to educate and advance any but the wealthy? And to submit even alumni who are piled high with student debt to an increased cost of that debt? There is a way out, one that a majority of Californians actually support, which is renewing state supported public higher education, not just to stop tuition increases but to reverse those of recent decades. Were the state to reinvest in public higher education, the tuition tax problem and the student debt problem would literally melt away.
Let me sum up
1) The tax reform bill, in addition to being an extreme exercise in anti-egalitarianism, is part of the larger GOP and right-wing assault on higher education and on public goods.
2) Raising tuition to scandalous levels, and then taxing graduate students for this scandal, threatens to finish off America’s public research universities and eliminate access to post-secondary education for America’s poor and working class.
3) Abolishing the deduction for student debt, while cutting taxes for the rich, and generating new deductions for “pass through income” for the 1%, is basic feudalism, complete with indentured servitude.
4) State supported public higher education is the opposite of these cruel and anti-democratic measures. There is more support for this than you have been led to believe, and it alone challenges an order in which higher education increasingly entrenches class rather than securing the equal opportunity that is the among the most elemental promises of American liberal democracy.
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