Columbia students threaten to withhold tuition fees amid Covid protest

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Almost 1,800 students at Columbia University in New York are threatening to withhold tuition fees next year, in the latest signal to US academia of widespread preparedness to act on demands to reduce costs and address social justice issues relating to labor, investments and surrounding communities.

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In a letter to trustees and administrators of Columbia, Barnard College and Teachers College, the students said: “The university is acutely failing its students and the local community.”

They accused the university of “inaction” since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March, when students began demonstrating against what they say are exorbitant tuition rates “which constitute a significant source of financial hardship during this economic depression”.

The letter referred to national protests over structural racism, accusing the university of failing to act on demands to address “its own role in upholding racist policing practices, damaging local communities and inadequately supporting Black students”.

Emmaline Bennett, chair of the Columbia-Barnard Young Democratic Socialists of America and a master’s student at Teachers College, told the Guardian the university and other colleges had made no effort to reduce tuition fees as they moved to remote learning models necessitated by pandemic conditions.

“We think it says a lot about the profit motive of higher education, even as the economy is in crisis and millions of people are facing unemployment,” Bennett said. “This is especially true of Columbia, which is one of the most expensive universities in the US.”

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Demands outlined in the letter include reducing the cost of attendance by at least 10%, increasing financial aid by the same percentage and replacing fees with grants.

Such reforms, the letter said, should not come at the expense of instructor or worker pay, but rather at the expense of bloated administrative salaries, expansion projects and other expenses that do not directly benefit students and workers.

The university, the letter said, must invest in community safety solutions that prioritise the safety of Black students, and “commit to complete transparency about the University’s investments and respect the democratic votes of the student body regarding investment and divestment decisions – including divestment from companies involved in human rights violations and divesting fully from fossil fuels.

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“These issues are united by a shared root cause: a flagrant disregard for initiatives democratically supported within the community. Your administration’s unilateral decision-making process has perpetuated the existence of these injustices in our community despite possessing ample resources to confront them with structural solutions.

“Should the university continue to remain silent in the face of the pressing demands detailed below, we and a thousand of fellow students are prepared to withhold tuition payments for the Spring semester and not to donate to the university at any point in the future.”

A Columbia spokesperson said: “Throughout this difficult year, Columbia has remained focused on preserving the health and safety of our community, fulfilling our commitment to anti-racism, providing the education sought by our students and continuing the scientific and other research needed to overcome society’s serious challenges.”

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The university has frozen undergraduate tuition fees and allowed greater flexibility in coursework over three terms. It has also, it said, adopted Covid-related provisions including an off-campus living allowance of $4,000 per semester, to help with living and technology expenses related to remote learning.

Columbia is not alone in facing elevated student demands. In late August, for example, students at the University of Chicago staged a week-long picket of the provost’s house as part of a campaign to disband the university police department, Chicago’s largest private force.

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The issue of student debt remains challenging. In a nod to progressives, President-elect Joe Biden last month affirmed his support for a US House measure which would erase up to $10,000 in private, non-federal loan debt for distressed individuals.

Biden highlighted “people … having to make choices between paying their student loan and paying the rent” and said such debt relief “should be done immediately”.

Some Democrats say relief should go further. In September, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren co-authored a resolution which called for the next president to cancel up to $50,000 of outstanding federal loans per borrower.

At Columbia, students say their demands for Covid-related fee reductions are only a starting point.

“In the long-term, we need to reform the educational system entirely,” said Bennett. “We need to make all universities and colleges free, and to cancel all student debt to prevent enduring educational and economic inequalities.”