Student protests against tuition increases at the 10-campus University of California system pushed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to announce on Tuesday an initiative to guarantee that the state spends more on universities than it does on prisons.

The central role of student protests is not just my theory; it’s the explanation offered by the governor’s own chief of staff. “Those protests on the U.C. campuses were the tipping point” for the governor, Susan Kennedy said in an interview with the New York Times.

She was referring to the coordinated actions at the start of the fall term, when 5,000 students and workers, along with many faculty members, rallied at Berkeley, while 700 gathered at UCLA’s Bruin Plaza. Simultaneous protests were held at Riverside, Irvine, and other campuses. (That story HERE).

The university recently announced a 32 per cent increase in student fees for next year. It has long been held as a beacon of promise for young people, offering high quality education at relatively low cost. That era, many fear, is coming to an end.

“The priorities have become out of whack over the years,” the governor said in his final address to state legislators. “I mean, think about it, 30 years ago, 10 percent of the general fund went to higher education, and 3 percent went to prisons. Today, almost 11 percent goes to prisons, and only 7.5 percent goes to higher education.”

Schwarzenegger said he was “choosing universities over prisons,” calling his proposal “a historic and transforming realignment of California’s priorities.”

The governor’s proposal is a constitutional amendment that requires either a two-thirds vote in the legislature or a majority vote in a referendum.

Given the inability of the legislature to raise taxes, the governor’s proposal in effect calls for cutting the prison budget and shifting those funds to the university. That pits students and the university against the powerful prison guards union and law-and-order Republicans in the state.

That will be a battle worth fighting.