Students from the 11 campuses of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) gathered to establish an indefinite and systematic strike to halt all academic activity on April 5. The strike is a response to the $450 million budget-cut that was included in the country’s fiscal plan and approved by the Fiscal Oversight Board on March 13.
The motion for the strike, presented by students from the group Enlace Estudiantil, states a list of demands to be met for them to return to campus. Some of the requirements included that students should not be sanctioned for participating in the strike, that a University Reform Plan be prepared by the university community, that the public debt be audited, that the government reinstate the members of the Audit Committee, and that the enrollment fee for the school does not increase.
Some students claim that they have been excluded from participating in the economic restructuring of the UPR.
Wilmarí de Jesús, president of the Student Council of Río Piedras campus, stated that what they want is “for the governor to take action and that he not only meet with [students], but that he answers to the call for change that not only comes from the students at Río Piedras, but from people of all different sectors asking for an audit of the public debt.”
The strike, however, has had some repercussions. El Nuevo Día reported that on April 20 the U.S. Department of Education notified the Río Piedras campus, which has been on strike since March 28, that they are no longer eligible for Title IV funds. This action would, therefore, prevent students from applying for financial aid for the next academic year. Some of the benefits included in the Title IV funds are the Pell Grant, student loans, and the Federal Work Study program.
In an official letter delivered to the school, the Department of Education confirmed that this decision serves as a response to the current strike.
In order to regain its eligibility, the Río Piedras campus will have to complete an application to the Department of Education. As a prerequisite for their application, they must prove that they have reinstated classes and present a calendar of how they are going to make up lost time.
Not all students, however, agree that the strike is necessary. Some say that even though they are not happy with the budget cuts, they think that the strike will have a negative impact on the school. Some fear that they will not be able to finish their education in time to apply to graduate programs or to find internships and jobs. There is also a fear that the university could lose its Middle States accreditation.
Independent of what ends up happening to the school, there is no doubt that the UPR is a big economic contributor to the island. In a recent study conducted by economists José Alameda and Alfredo González, they presented how the UPR contributes millions of dollars to the economy through jobs, contributions, and the overall enrichment of society. For many small towns, such as Mayagüez, the UPR serves as the main source of economic activity.
The UPR is the only source of public higher education on the island. The strike serves as an example of how much it means to its students, alumni, and Puerto Ricans in general. Although the future remains unclear, policymakers will have to work with the U.S. Department of Education in order to ensure future funding.