Adam Doster

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

When New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo launched an investigation last November into the dealings of the private student loan industry, he did not find a pretty sight. Exploitative lenders were providing kickbacks to universities and their personnel in hopes of landing on preferred lender lists distributed to students, an act of collusion that only hurt unsuspecting young people. With such nefarious corruption afoot, Congress acted swiftly. The House Education Committee interrogated Department of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, and Congress overwhelmingly passed the Student Loan Sunshine Act.

But in a scandal that directly violated student’s rights, their voices were mostly absent. Aside from a few opinion columns penned in student papers and a handful of blog posts blasting the crooked industry, virtually no campus witnessed an organized movement demanding justice for young lendees.

The silence extends beyond student loans. “There’s been basically no coordinated national effort to respond to [student rights abuses] that any random student could point to.” says Lucas Shapiro, 27, a member of the Coordinating Committee for the Young Democratic Socialists.

That’s not to say that American students are apolitical. Those under 24 lean well to the left of their elders, according to numerous national surveys like the one published by the New Politics Institute in February, which found that 29 percent of people between 18 and 22 consider themselves liberal or progressive as opposed to 17 percent who consider themselves moderate and 17 percent conservative. And students continually organize on behalf of marginalized people, whether it’s campus employees, sweatshop laborers abroad, or genocide victims in Sudan. What’s strange is that American students rarely advocate for themselves at the national level, a phenomenon exemplified by the dearth of undergraduate student unions on campuses nationwide.

Though largely absent in the United States, national undergraduate student unions are a staple of many education systems around the globe. Our friendly neighbors to the north are a primary example. The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), Canada’s largest student organization, represents half a million students at over 80 schools across the country. Created in 1981, CFS is the result of a merger between two existing organizations, the National Union of Students (NUS) and the Association of Ontario Student Councils (AOSC). Members of NUS, a left-leaning organization influenced both by the British student union model and 1960s anti-war activism, sought to build an organization that could collectively bargain for students’ rights on campuses in every province. To appeal to a wide range of students, NUS organizers joined efforts with the AOSC, a group that sold cheap European airfare to student travelers. By merging progressive policies with consumer advantages, organizers found a way to wed students’ short-term desires (cheap flights) and their long-term goals (lower tuition).

In its current form, the CFS is a powerful and well-organized union that offers its members scores of benefits. CFS is not short on funds; students pay a yearly fee that is collected by university administrators as part of the student registration process. The union’s primary concern is lobbying. Federation representatives meet routinely with government officials on Parliament Hill to voice their concerns about tuition fees, debt reduction, and aboriginal student rights, among other issues. They also frequently make presentations to government committees and task forces at the capitol building, armed with in-depth policy papers produced by their paid internal research staff.

Activism also plays a key role in CFS strategy. Members often participate in online petition drives and protests to exhibit their union’s force. In 2004, the CFS branch in British Columbia organized a three-month, 40-college tour focused on the effects of tuition increases. The campaign was crucial to the provinces’ decision to introduce tuition fee freezes and reductions. And membership in CFS provides young Canadians with discounts on travel, cell phones, and even supplemental health insurance.

Canada is not an isolated example. England’s NUS represents 98 percent of collegians in the higher education system. Various French student unions, by occupying over 75 percent of campuses across the country, played a decisive role in killing the 2006 Contrat Premiére Embauche (first employment contract) labor bill that would have deregulated labor and made young employees susceptible to job termination. In 2005, Chilean students brought their universities to a month-long standstill by protesting a law that privatized need-based financial aid. And the list goes on.

In the United States, the closest equivalent to a national undergraduate union is the United States Student Association. Founded in 1947 and boasting 2 million members, the organization lobbies federal higher education legislation and policy and organizes students from across the country to participate in the political process through a variety of means, such as letter-writing campaigns and face-to-face visits between students and their elected officials. But unlike its counterparts abroad, USSA affiliates members through a referendum vote by student governments. “Much of our work in USSA,” says Vice President Gabriel Pendas, “is really to build a sense of responsibility among student government towards advocacy and organizing.” But critics claim that this membership structure is the organization’s Achilles’ heel. Due to the use of student governments as a middleman, many USSA members are either inactive or unaware of their status as members.

Compared to their unionized counterparts around the globe, American students face an uphill battle. It’s been well-documented, but colleges in the United States are rapidly growing more expensive and exclusive. As federal and state governments divest from higher education and loans replace grants as the most common form of payment, tuition has outpaced inflation for three decades and now the average graduate debt burden is $19,000.

Meanwhile, the rise of the knowledge-based economy (and the need for academic research to move it forward) has led corporations to seek intimate partnerships with universities. Administrators, concerned with covering their funding shortfalls, have often embraced these partnerships. “Over the last 25 years or so, as universities have put more of a premium on the commercial value of research on campus,” says Jennifer Washburn, a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of University, Inc: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education. “There’s been more and more of an incentive for them to pay less attention to actual teaching and undergraduate instruction.”

Undergraduates are not oblivious. As Washburn points out, students realize that the advertising catalogues that clog applicants’ mailboxes don’t reflect reality. Yet building power to combat the exclusion of undergrads from university decision-making has produced limited success. “There’s been a problem of not being able to organize constituencies that really care about quality education on campus to fight back against the forces that are pushing the university to move away from its core mission, which is education and quality, disinterested research,” she says.

One reason student unions are scarce may be the memory of the pitched battles on campus in the 1960s. According to Ben Manski, the executive director of the Liberty Tree Foundation, a critique developed of the left that ’60s activists were too focused on affairs in the ivory tower and could not organize off campus. While justified, he thinks the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, a mistake given the extreme vulnerability of students today. “With a few notable exceptions,” he says, “the 1960s generation has an orientation to draw people off campus and into the community without reinvesting in the campus.”

For most current American students, raised in an era of declining union membership and civic organizations, collective action is a foreign concept as well. As Rich Yesleson, a Coordinator in the Strategic Organizing Center at Change to Win notes, labor history’s marginalization in both the primary and secondary classroom presents another obstacle to building understanding. “If you’re interested in labor history, you can’t study it in great detail and specificity,” he says. “You can get a little bit here and a little bit there but you can’t study intensely.” As a result, young folks aren’t aware of successful models on which to fashion their own organizations.

Another obstacle is student turnover. If no organizational infrastructure exists, graduation and student transfers can decimate an otherwise strong movement.

No matter the cause, the end result is that while student organizers ignore their own plight, colleges develop into increasingly inaccessible and undemocratic institutions. A cure could be further experimentation in “higher education organizing,” a term Manski often uses to describe his organization’s efforts in uniting cross-campus constituencies. Whether it’s non-tenured track faculty, university staff, graduate and undergraduate student employees, or undergrads, a variety of college populations are losing their voice in university affairs. Graduate students are unionized at some state universities and are fighting to form unions at many private universities as well to fight growing workloads and low pay. If grad students, faculty, and undergrads could join forces to combat shared problems, all the parties involved could benefit.

Building a coalition intimately tied with organized labor, which could supply student unions with financial resources and strategic tips, could be beneficial as well. And for unions struggling to rebuild their ranks, a new generation of organizers schooled in union struggles would be a sight for sore eyes. “As union density has waned over the last 40 or 50 years, the labor demographic has changed dramatically. Workers now tend to be much older, so without new blood, you literally have the American labor movement dying out,” Yesleson says. “It’s fundamental for any social movement to replenish itself with younger membership.”

Although dissent is growing, the national discussion about the role of higher education remains guarded. But with gritty campus organizing and national lobbying, undergraduates can change the tenor of the debate.