Austerity isn’t something to celebrate

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The statement in the image above reads, “No student should have to borrow money to pay tuition at a public college.” Unfortunately, the University of Connecticut is currently increasing tuition fees in order to compensate for their increase in spending. Courtesy of Wikimedia

Fiscal management at the University of Connecticut has taken a positive turn, according to reporting by The Daily Campus, with its revenue bonds — a form of financial liability — being upgraded from “A1” to “Aa3” by Moody’s Investors Service. 

The significance of this news is decidedly hard to appreciate for non-investors. To summarize, UConn holds $50 million of a certain kind of liability known as “Special Obligation Student Fee Revenue Bonds.” These revenue bonds are a portion of student fees and revenues proposed by the university to repay debt owed to the third parties that hold it. In other words, revenues raised through tuition, housing, facilities and other fees are partially used to service what it borrows to grow the university. 

Looking beyond the financial jargon, UConn’s bond rating being upgraded from one alphanumeric combination to another simply indicates that the university is a more reliable debtor to give back what it owes. This upgrade is a testament to “the strength of UConn’s fiscal management and brand,” according to The Daily Campus. A strong brand, however, is not a tangible service from which students, staff and faculty can benefit. In fact, the university’s supposedly strong fiscal position comes at the expense of students and workers at UConn in a number of ways. The “strong fiscal management” that Moody’s and UConn administrators are celebrating is a strategic rebrand of austerity, or the policy of maintaining a balanced budget by cutting services and increasing costs to constituents — the UConn community.  

Tensions over cuts to student services have previously flared up this semester. In September, reductions in the yearly operating budgets of various cultural centers – due to the frozen allocation of funds to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion – sparked student concerns and mobilization. And although they were organized well enough to encourage negotiations, the Connecticut Employees Union Independent prepared to rally earlier this semester to protest their replacement by private contractors, who are unrepresented by unions. The lack of investment into mental health services and sexual assault prevention and accountability, too, represent a deficit in care for the community. 

Conversely, university spending is creeping up seemingly without concern for budgetary constraints, and costs are increasing to match. UConn’s $1.7 billion combined operating and capital budgets for fiscal year 2023, which earmarks $35 million for the new Toscano Family Ice Forum, is joined with hundreds of dollars in fee increases for students attending the university, according to the Office of Budget, Planning and Institutional Research’s 2023 fee proposal

If debt repayment is so imperative as to make it dependent on student fee increases, we should question the urgency of ambitious and expensive capital projects such as the Ice Forum, the new, state-of-the-art Northwest Science Quad and the recently announced construction of an additional South Campus residence hall. The projects were outlined in UConn’s Campus Master Plan, which is the culmination of a long-term planning process for capital projects. Understanding this, it is clear that UConn’s long-term planning accounts for visible and marketable developments over the affordability, accessibility and sustainability of attending any of its campuses.  

Similarly, the budget of UConn’s police department rests around $18 million, per reporting from 2020, posing another massive clog in the budget that is static, if not increasing, while student fees increase with no end in sight. Policing students should not come before providing them with an affordable and sustainable education.  

While lenders revel in UConn’s fiscal responsibility, low-income students, students requiring better-resourced mental healthcare services and cultural centers, university employees deserving living wages and benefits and community members outside the illustrious athletics department have yet to see the benefits. Austerity is not something to celebrate, especially when a balanced budget is not utilized equitably. UConn must put students and university employees first by prioritizing affordability and fair compensation over ambitious vanity projects in long-term planning.

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