In his budget address a few weeks ago, governor Fortuño referred to public, affordable higher education as a “privilege” that Puerto Rico provides to its students at no small cost to its citizens. To reinforce the message, he compared UPR tuition prices to the much higher ones of other, private, higher education institutions in the island, and of colleges and universities in the United States.
In an “us vs them” move seemingly designed to conceptually place responsible tax payers against protesting students, he stated that “tuition paid by students, when they do pay, is but a 3% of the university’s budget…the rest is paid by us taxpayers. Which is why our people, just and noble, yes, but also democratic and respectful of law and order, get upset when they see what we have all seen in the University these past two days.” As the strike grew bigger and more complicated, today involving all of the 11 campuses, a number of public and private citizens have echoed the governor’s general message, portraying the students as selfish, privileged, disorderly, and “ideologically” driven. As I write this column, the president of the UPR’s Board of Regents is stating, on the radio, that the striking students are “breaking down the institution”.
At the heart of this image is the idea that the university is too inexpensive for the individual students and too expensive for the state, thus rendering student complaints about the elimination of tuition waivers, and their insistence that tuition rates stay low, as shallow. I propose we examine this notion. Is the university really “too cheap”? Is it a “cost” to the state? “Cheap” and “expensive” are relative terms, and they arise from comparing the costs of the UPR with other institutions. However, is the comparison with private institutions in the island, and with public and private universities in the US, an appropriate comparison?
Private institutions in the island have helped the country meet an increasing demand for higher education degrees but in terms of efficiency and value, economic studies have shown that the University of Puerto Rico,with double the graduation rate and producing 95% of the island’s research output, represents the best return on investment for public funds.
Universities across the United States, a country traditionally known for its excellence in higher education, are experiencing problems that the states are concerned with. Two (related) ones are 1)access issues faced by minorities and low-income students and 2)the production of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) degrees. Access problems are in great part due precisely to increasing tuition costs in 4 year colleges and universities. STEM degrees hover around 20% of US degrees, at a time when the country desperately needs to increase the domestic STEM workforce. Mainland universities have an average of only 14% of their student body qualifying for need-based Pell Grants. A number of efforts in the United States, including the intensive use of federal ARRA funds, are directed at increasing the number of underrepresented students and of STEM degrees.
In contrast, at the University of Puerto Rico, 40% of the degrees are STEM, and two-thirds of its student body qualifies for need-based aid. The UPR produces today 16% of the Hispanic STEM workforce in the US. Historically, the people of Puerto Rico have viewed their public university not as a cost or as a burden but as an investment-the kind of investment most needed in times of economic crisis.
The governor is fond of the “family” metaphor. He often compares Puerto Rico and its current fiscal crisis with a family that needs to make hard choices to face periods of economic crisis, and wonders out loud about why the UPR cannot seem to be able to “tighten its belt” like so many families have done around the island. But even within the metaphor, choosing to take resources away from the public university in times of fiscal crisis would be akin to taking away children’s educational opportunities. Few families would agree with this choice.
The constitution of Puerto Rico (section 5, art.2) provides for a free public education system covering grades 1 through 12. This was in 1952, when a high school diploma brought a certain amount of prestige and a number of job opportunities. It could easily be argued that what the high school diploma meant for the fifties, the college degree means for today.
Affordable, public higher education cannot be seen as cost or expense, but as value. It is one of those things where Puerto Rico consistently “lo hace mejor.” It is one of the best investments we have made as a collectivity, as a society. Let us protect it.
*Puerto Rico Daily Sun, 8 de mayo, 2009. Une en una sola narrativa varios temas discutidos antes aquí, en el blog.
A few years ago I was driving through the center of the island with my family, a road-trip style summer vacation. Feeling thirsty, we decided to stop at a colmado. The kids wanted soda, the grown ups water. The owner sold us the former cheerfully, but refused to charge us for the latter. He felt funny, he said, charging money for water. We left his store with some soda cans, chips, a couple of free plastic water bottles, and a conversation topic for the rest of the trip.
The colmado owner’s discomfort with selling water came to mind as I read a recent headline in the Belfast Telegraph (April16th), about the mass suicide of 1500 farmers in the Indian state of Chattisgarh, driven to unbearable debt by insufficient or failed crops. The cycle that drove them to debt and thus their death involved falling water levels, at least partially due to large megaprojects such as dams, which affect the movement and circulation of water, the delicate ecosystems around water sources, and the locations and demographics of the human populations living near them.
The newspaper cites a spokesperson for the Organic Farming Association of India, stating that “farmers’ suicides are increasing due to a vicious circle created by money lenders. They lure farmers to take money but when the crops fail, they are left with no option other than death.” But 1500 dead farmers is a lot of dead people. The equivalent, says blogger Malika Chopra, of the passengers inside four jumbo jets. The sheer number of bodies means that this is not a phenomenon that can be dismissed as the fault of the farmers, or even the lenders. It is the kind of number that necessarily and urgently points to large-scale, structural factors.
Some of these factors may very well be related to lending practices, but not those of individuals. According to Vandana Shiva, a respected Indian scholar-activist and author of numerous books and articles, the benefits of the large dams built in post-colonial India are far outweighed by their ecological and social costs. Most of these dams, like other mega projects, are built with money from loans provided by major financial institutions such as the World Bank. While these loans may be requested to improve the economic health of developing countries, oftentimes lending institutions require a portion of the funds to be used for the kind of infrastructure development that may facilitate additional investments from multinational corporations.
Dams are used to redirect water to corporate owned, large agricultural land holdings. But small farmers also need water. In fact, all living things need water. Over 60% of our human bodies are water. As recently as March, however, water was denied status as a basic human right by the United Nations. Corporations profiting from water sales (especially bottled water) lobbied intensely for this to happen.
These corporations do not share the unease of the colmado owner who would rather give us the liquid in spite of having previously paid for it himself. A plastic water bottle in Puerto Rico costs over one dollar and nearing two in some fast food establishments – much more than the cost of the equivalent amount of gasoline. The processing of the plastic used for packaging the bottled water we purchase entails, in turn, the contamination and waste of a lot more water. And so our desire for the freshest water possible is part of a cycle that renders drinkable water more scarce and its drinker, more privileged. This sort of unsustainability characterizes the production process of most of the goods we consume today.
Incredibly, the environmental crisis precipitated by the production cycles that render water scarce in the first place can be used to sell bottled water. A popular brand in an elegant (and expensive) plastic bottle donates five cents of each bottle sold to humanitarian water programs that bring water to populations with no access to it. Their website is beautiful and makes the viewer thirsty for this particular, “ethical”, drink. The world-wide water crisis is a big part of their marketing and attributed to causes outside of human (and corporate) action such as geography and climate.
The vision that drove the quest for the declaration of water as a human right is one that sees water as outside the realm of the market, thus rendering it sacred, a shared resource of immeasurable value. In contrast, the dominant vision sees water as a commodity to be purchased, sold and priced according not to the logic of need but to the logic of marketing and the maximization of profit. The needs of those without purchasing power are relegated, at best, to the marginal realm of charity (as long as charity can boost sales.)
The dead farmers neither had purchasing power nor were they deemed charity cases. They only had the dignity of their labor and their responsibility towards their families. Ironically, the United Nations recognizes their basic human right to work – but failed to protect their access to the water that would have made their work (and their lives) possible.
[edited to add strip - it was just too perfect.]
[Reprinted from my column today in the Puerto Rico Daily Sun.]
I’m all for long term investments in education. I am however concerned with the potential loss of this important and timely opportunity.
Take for example the case of E-Rate, an ambitious effort designed to help poor schools connect to the Internet. This program has distributed billions of dollars to schools and libraries that serve low-income populations. In its early years, the amount of money involved was fertile ground for all kinds of trouble. In El Paso, the school district paid IBM 35 million to build a network that the New York Times describes as “powerful enough to serve a small city”; in Florida, a 1 million dollar network was created to serve the needs of a 650 pupil elementary school; in San Francisco, a contractor was found guilty of rigging bids and bribing officials; and in Puerto Rico, after an investment of 100 million to hook 1500 schools to the internet, only a handful were online – partly because the schools had no computers to hook to the new networks.
In spite of massive expenditures that promised to leave “no child behind”, the United States in 2006 was one of only three (out of 34) OECD countries where younger workers were less college-educated that older ones. Hundreds of Puerto Rican schools are in “Improvement Plan” (an euphemism for “academically troubled”). The effectiveness of big investments in the improvement of education will depend on careful management of funds that target well-known and well-researched problems. Good data and best practices abound. Let’s use them.
In times of crisis, a solid government investment in the economy makes sense-if the government doesn’t, who will? FDR applied this notion with great success during the Great Depression. But these investments need to be watched after carefully, and to include a plan that measures results and holds contractors accountable to the citizenry. We want this investment in education to be truly long-term – to focus on what is good for the children, conceived of as future adults that will have better jobs (and thus contribute to a better economy) as a result of our actions today. We do not want this particular portion of Obama’s stimulus package to end up in CEO’s pockets, like some of the recent bailout funds did, or to create short term jobs and feed ghost companies, as happened with E-Rate and other initiatives. As the package gains momentum in Congress, and people in Puerto Rico and the US enjoy some well-deserved and sought after hope, let us keep an eye on those who may see the effort to provide for the economy’s long term health as an opportunity for their short-term gain. Our education is just too important.