The start to the spring 2022 semester at UC Berkeley has been anything but smooth. But one constant throughout this semester — as indeed it has been throughout all semesters during the COVID-19 pandemic — has been our access to essential technology resources, including software such as Zoom, Google Workspace, Microsoft and bCourses. These tools have quickly become necessities in our college courses and have enabled us to continue our education despite the challenges to traditional in-person instruction posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nowadays, a UC Berkeley student’s education consists no less of Google Docs and Kaltura than it does of blackboards and squeaky lecture hall seats.
Given how essential these tools are, it should come as a shock to every student that, instead of budgeting for these tools as critical instructional expenditures, campus has decided to pass these costs onto students. In late January, Interim Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Oliver O’Reilly and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Stephen Sutton announced their proposal for an Instructional Resilience and Enhancement Fee in an op-ed that presents a one-sided view of the technology funding landscape and leaves out important and concerning details. As student leaders who have worked all year on the issue of technology funding, we felt it necessary to provide the student body with a more complete assessment of this proposal.
Even the name of the proposal itself, the “Instructional Resilience and Enhancement Fee,” underscores the importance of these resources to instruction and undermines the argument that they should be funded by additional student fees instead of campus’s other revenue streams. These streams include more than $1 billion in annual tuition revenue and upward of $400 million in state funding.
In particular, California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently proposed a state budget that would increase funding for the UC system by 5% annually — with roughly $20 million for Berkeley — for the next five years. This year also saw revenue from students returning to campus, and last fiscal year set a record for philanthropic donations to UC Berkeley. Despite these investments, campus administrators continue to claim that they will be able to fund fewer technology resources for students going forward. The issue here is a lack of administrative will, not a lack of funding.
In their op-ed announcing the fee proposal, O’Reilly and Sutton emphasized that “it is imperative that we lower costs and increase access to this software.” We completely agree: To reduce costs and to equitably distribute resources, software licenses must be negotiated at a campuswide level. But as ASUC leaders heavily involved in student fee discussions, we have seen no evidence of any attempts by the campus to negotiate better prices from software vendors or to limit the cost of this fee.
This is all the more concerning because the annual fee amount of $278 is far from an inconsequential cost for students. That’s why the little attention given by administrators to the impact of this cost increase emphasizes the growing disconnect between campus leaders making six-figure salaries and students barely able to afford housing or groceries. Though O’Reilly and Sutton note that “students receiving financial aid would be supported in covering the costs of any new fee,” they fail to mention that the 33% of the fee that would go to financial aid is not enough to cover the cost of the fee for all students with financial aid. There is no mistaking that this fee’s burden will be felt by many students.
The final and perhaps most concerning issue with this proposal is its complete lack of accountability for the students who have to pay the fee. In contrast to the Student Technology Fee, this proposal is not subject to a campuswide vote by students. In fact, the proposal is subject to virtually no required student consultation or approval other than a Pulse Survey and focus group, as the chancellor has the sole authority to approve or deny the fee. As far as student fees go, the administration has chosen one of the least democratic and least accountable fee structures available.
The sore need for accountability is evident in the numerous open questions raised by this proposal. Is there a sunset date for the fee or will it continue indefinitely; is the fee subject to increase through inflation; who gets to decide what technology resources students do or don’t need?
All of these questions remain unanswered, which is all the more reason that such a large student fee requires robust student accountability, including a campuswide referendum. Without the necessary safeguards, there is no guarantee that this will be the last of essential resources that the campus forces students to pay for themselves. This is the first proposal of its kind, but it likely won’t be the last.
There is, and will continue to be, no real distinction between traditional physical course resources and their digital counterparts —except in how they’re paid for. But if this campus is serious about its public mission and serious about maintaining its prestige well into the 21st century, then it must also get serious about providing funding for some of the campus’s most basic technology resources that sustain our world-class education. It’s time for the campus to step up. The student body and the state are watching.