When students in Quebec heard earlier this summer that the government planned to raise college tuition by 75%, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Montreal in massive protests.
If the increases go through, their tuition will be almost $4,000 per year.
University of Washington students, on the other hand, may soon be paying more than $20,000 per year, if the trend of tuition hikes over the past four years continues.
But throughout these yearly increases, protests with more than a couple hundred UW students have been all but unheard of.
Similar economic stresses and budget cuts have affected college students around the globe. The difference is how they are handling these changes.
As student protests have erupted from Chile to Canada, US college students have barely made a peep.
So why is it that the youth outside of this country seem determined and able to have their voices heard by those in power, while most in the US do not?
UW PhD student Jorge Rojas has a unique perspective on this subject. He grew up in Chile, and received his masters’ degree in Australia. He’s also one of the main organizers of Outraged Chileans, which he helped found in April of 2011 in Chile to focus on educational disparities there. In August the group organized a rally in Santiago, the capital, in which 50,000 people took part.
Rojas thinks the biggest reason there is much less participation is that the students don’t feel like they can make a difference.
“They don’t realize the power that they have,” he said. “They just have to unite themselves and fight for something that is fair.”
Easier said than done. The UW, like most public universities in the US, has a huge student body and a sprawling campus. Most importantly, he said, its student government is divided into The Associated Students of the University of Washington (ASUW), the Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS) and the Student-Employee Union, three student groups which are easily divided and conquered by university policy makers.
“In Chile if tuition increased by 20%, I can tell you that you would have rallies everyday on the street, not once a week or once a month, it would be everyday– people would occupy the buildings of the universities,” said Rojas, who is a Senator for UW’s Graduate student government.
Chirag Bhakta believes that this type of action is slowly but surely making its way to the US. He is the West Coast National Field Organizer for the United States Student Association, the biggest and oldest student-run association to tackle educational disparities in the country.
“In US it’s a lot harder to build a social movement,” he said, when comparing it to Mexico and Canada. “We don’t have a collective identity in the US. Therefore it sometimes takes these big dips for people in America to actually get it, to actually understand.”
He said that now that students across the country are starting to understand the injustices taking place in the education system, they have begun to defend themselves, instead of just reacting to changes already made.
Bhakta did clarify that this doesn’t mean that millions of US students will all rally together tomorrow. It will start out slow, with a lot of small steps, like letters and petitions, to help every student begin to take an active role.
“And then they’ll be there at the rallies and they’ll be there when they have to do more direct action,” he said. “That’s the way to bring everyone into the movement no matter where they fall within the active spectrum.”
Last fall David Wieland, who will be a senior at UW next year, helped organize a rally where 250 UW students participated. He said that this was “more than any other sort of political activity I’ve ever seen on campus.”
Wieland got involved with these movements because of his frustration with changes at the public university. One of which is the fact that even now that he is in high-level courses, most are still overwhelmingly huge lecture classes.
“It’s hard to get time with the person who actually knows the subject,” said Wieland. “One-hundred people going to the professor after class just doesn’t work.”
Wieland is a Husky Promise student, which means that when he first applied to UW, the school gave him a guarantee that he would not have to pay tuition for the four years he is a student.
They have kept their promise. Unfortunately, he said, as tuition continues to be raised, more and more of the money he receives from the school is not scholarships and grants, but loans.
“By the time I gradate, I will be $15,000 in debt,” said Wieland. This may be low compared to the national average, but for someone from a low-income household, who came to the school thinking he would have no loans, it is very disconcerting news.
He said that he believes social movements can impact the country’s educational system, so he spends his time trying to get other people organized.
Wieland sees several reasons for his peers’ inaction.
“A lot of my friends don’t see their actions translating into change in the political realm,” he said. “I think the second thing would be a political and social climate that doesn’t see protests and marches as a legitimate way to express grievance.”
And the third reason is that when the economy is bad, students feel pressure to get their degree quickly, get good grades and then get a high paying job. He said that attending protests can jeopardize these things.
In the fall he plans to start another Student Debt Noise Brigade, which is a weekly rally in Capitol Hill in favor of lowering college tuition and abolishing student debt. He wants to have it in the University District so that UW students will have an outlet for their discontent.
David Reyes, who graduated from the UW in 2011, spent five months studying abroad at Université Mohammed V of Agdal, in Morocco. He said student protests were a lot more effective there, despite the government being less democratic in general, partly because the campus was in the same city as the capitol.
“The students would protest outside Parliament, where lawmakers could see them,” he said. “And they are the ones who are in charge of tuition in Morocco.”
But no matter the cause, Rojas said the movement has to have one crucial element if anything is going to change at the UW: “It has to be massive.”