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tuition strike! how-to guide

info share from Abolish the UC comrades

Fall 2020

Across the so-called United States, university responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, from the disorganized and slow responses during the start of the pandemic in spring, to the decisions of over 1000 institutions to bring students back on campus for the fall, have only laid bare what we have always known – universities do not care for their students except as sources of revenue.

Such reopening decisions, rather than being informed by public health policy and what’s best for the well-being of students and workers, are influenced by the way the university runs: on the increasing tuition, fees, and rent exacted from its student body. The absurd cost of higher education is in large part justified by the “quality of instruction” coming from acclaimed institutions and by the large number of “services” provided by these schools, including dining halls, housing, recreational centers, and parking. Administrators fear that all these justifications would disappear if universities allowed students to simply take online courses. Rather than risk a significant loss in income or a cutback on the ridiculous salaries of certain administrators, universities would rather risk the lives of both students and workers, all in service to capital.

At the same time, the reliance of universities on tuition dollars and the operation of the university as a “service provider” to its “customers,” the students, makes tuition payment a unique and powerful point of leverage that can be utilized to fight for the safety and rights of both students and university workers. A tuition strike is thus one way for students to take advantage of this leverage. Moreover, with the increasingly recurrent calls for a general strike across all industries and workplaces, a tuition strike would provide a meaningful avenue through which students can stand in solidarity with exploited workers, bringing the capitalist university to a halt as others bring their exploitative workplaces to a standstill.

While we present the current COVID-19 context to demonstrate the urgent need for direct action, we also recognize that the university has always served as an ideological state apparatus that helps (re)produce and uphold colonial-capitalist structures and knowledge. Therefore, we draw attention to the tuition strike as a tactic that can be used whenever and wherever engaging in organized direct action will move the university towards meeting student and worker demands. More often than not, demands and concessions are won, not by taking a seat at the table and playing on the university’s terms, but through direct action or the real threat of such action.

What is a Tuition Strike?

A tuition strike is when students collectively withhold tuition from the university. Think of it like a hybrid between a traditional strike (workers withholding their labor) and a boycott (consumers withholding their purchasing power). Students get together and collectively refuse to pay their tuition until their demands are met. Isn’t refusing to pay tuition risky? It is likely that the university would respond to a tuition strike by lashing out with threats framed as policy: late fees, non-payment drops, etc. These threats represent real risks for striking students and would lay bare the UO administration’s disregard for the welfare of the students they claim to serve. It may be impossible to completely insulate strikers from repercussions, but just as in every collective action, the risks decrease as participation in the strike increases. The best protection is mass participation.

How to Tuition Strike

1. Organize
The most important part of any organizing is building community. This is especially important for a tuition strike, since it depends on numbers – it’s easy for the administration to drop a few students for non-payment, but thousands of students withholding tuition becomes a problem they can’t just ignore. Start reaching out to other undergraduates. What are their needs? What do they want to see happen? Talk to people in your dorm, in your classes, where you work, and everywhere else. Reach out to undergrad organizations that already exist to build your network and get buy-in. Build connections, build community, build power. Collectively decide on your demands and plan of action.

2. Talk to Your Parents
For many students, paying tuition isn’t something they do alone. Maybe your parents take out Parent Direct PLUS Loans to help put you through college, or maybe they pay for your tuition out of pocket. They will need to be on board if you are going to withhold that money. Your group should create information aimed at parents to help them understand what you are doing and why.

3. Announce Your Plans
Tell everyone! Early on, it may be good to be secretive until you have built up some support and are ready to go public. Once you’re ready to get the university’s attention, announce the tuition strike loudly in public. This is your first chance to let the university know your demands, so come out of the gate swinging. Use social media, write press releases, and send mass email blasts to students, faculty, and staff.

4. Withhold Tuition
If you or your parents pay your tuition and fees out-of-pocket, your job is relatively easy: just don’t pay them! If you pay for college with student loans, the process is a little more complicated. Borrowers have the right to cancel any future loan payments. To do this, you’ll need to call your student loan service provider and rescind disbursement authorization. If your parents took out Parent Direct PLUS Loans, they will have to do this step for you.

5. Pay Attention to Deadlines
You’ll want to rescind payment authorization before funds are disbursed – it will be much harder to take your tuition back once it’s already been paid. Familiarize yourself with your campus’s disbursement schedule, registration and payment deadlines, late fees, and other relevant information.

6. Keep up the Pressure, Build Momentum
Withholding tuition has real leverage, but it is largely invisible to people outside university offices. People will not be able to see the effects of your actions right away, so you’ll need to make yourselves visible. Build momentum and keep up the pressure by engaging in direct action throughout the duration of the strike. Work with your affinity groups and make things happen. For some ideas, look to previous student movements and other struggles. Keep a strong social media presence and regular email updates so everyone knows that the strike is still going strong.

Because of the individual nature of tuition withholding, strikers might feel isolated or even scared. Community care will be an important part of sustaining the movement, so check in on each other and maintain the strong community ties that you’ve already developed.

~~~The university will not take care of us, so we have to take care of each other.~~~

C o n c l u s i o n

The tuition strike is one tactic in an array of tactics for fighting back against the university. And while tuition withholding is not a magic solution, combined with other forms of direct action, it can be a powerful tool. Alone, our tuition payments and the student debt they generate are a burden on us and our families. But together, they make us powerful. Together, they give us leverage we can use to bring the normal functioning of the university to a grinding halt.



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