At an island-wide student assembly in Ponce June 21 nearly 3,000 students voted to end the strike, which had closed down 10 of the public universitys 11 campuses. The Board of Trustees rescinded a plan to reduce the number of tuition waivers, promised not to privatize the university, and agreed to hold off on tuition and fee hikes at least until January 2011. The assembly approved a separate resolution authorizing another strike if the administration raises fees at that time.
The administration also agreed to drop attempts to summarily punish some of the leaders of the strike.
The accord between the National Student Negotiating Committee and the Board of Trustees allows the administration to keep its financial books closed. Students had been demanding open books.
Some 30 percent of the 62,000 students at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) receive tuition waivers, including athletes, musicians, and honor students. More than 60 percent of students get U.S. federal Pell Grants, which help cover their expenses.
As soon as the accord was announced, students organized to clean up the campuses they had been occupying and get them ready for classes. The most important thing that we won is showing that we have the power to change things, Frederick Cortés, a political science student, told the Militant in a phone interview while participating in a volunteer cleanup crew at the Río Piedras campus in San Juan. Cortés was part of the student occupation of the campus.
During the strike doctors came to campus and gave us free medical checkups. People driving by would stop and give us food. They told us dont give up, were counting on you, Cortés said. Union members, especially from the teachers union and the electrical workers, also actively backed the strike.
Administration officials tried to divide the students by organizing assemblies they hoped would call off the strike on some campuses, but failed. The government also sent in cops to block the delivery of food and water to students camped out at the university, but backed down after just a few days.
While the strike has succeeded in holding off fee and tuition hikes for now, cuts in the number of classes and increases in class size have not been reversed, Cortés noted.
In November, Gov. Luis Fortuño began laying off 17,000 government workers. He claimed this was needed to close a $3.2 billion budget gap. Unemployment in Puerto Rico, a U.S. colony, has risen to an official rate of almost 17 percent, aggravated by government layoffs.
The measures have also affected the public universities, which get 90 percent of their funds from the islands government. Tuition rose 12 percent in 2007 and 4 percent the following year. The university administration has threatened to raise tuition and fees by anywhere from $500 to $1,400 a semester.
Students from all different political views, from those who support Puerto Rican independence to those who think it should become a U.S. state, all came together to defend the right to a public education, Mariana Lima, an education major at the Río Piedras campus, said in a phone interview.
This fight is not over, she said. We need to regain our strength and be prepared if they try to raise the costs again. We are ending the strike with our heads held high.
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