In defence of the ideal university: The battle for Cooper Union

Cooper Union in the USA was founded to offer 'education equal to the best' while staying 'open and free to all' - but this ideal is under threat from new management. This is the story of the students' battle to keep their institution true to itself

Looking out over Manhatten, the occupiers at Cooper Union seem to have a pretty good setup. With the college president's office now occupied for eight weeks, the protestors have made themselves into the school’s alternative administration.

Alumni have made key campaigners plaques for their desks, and the entrance to the space, formerly a reception area, now shows a proportion of the artwork and installations that the campaign has inspired. The message that education is a public good, and that it should be available to all regardless of finances, rings loud and true.

Cooper Union, founded in 1859 by Peter Cooper, was created to ensure that 'education equal to the best' was, and is, 'open and free to all'. The university at present provides a full tuition scholarship to all its students, ensuring that at least in principle, the opportunity to study in the institution is not hindered by race, class or wealth. This ideal is core to both the campaign currently taking place, and also the beliefs of all those who I met during my time in New York.

The seeds of the current occupation were sewn in October 2011, when the newly appointed president Jamshed Bharucha announced to the world that Cooper Union was considering charging fees to new students. It soon became clear that plans were in place, and Cooper Union now states that as of 2014, it intends to charge close to $20,000 a year in fees. A campaign subsequently started, and after a number of events and rallies, they held a seven day 'lock-in' in December 2012, a response to the threat of fees. Following this, and with the announcement now definitive, on 8 May 2013, the current occupation began.

An art, engineering and architecture school, the institution boasts an impressive and substantial list of alumni. Clearly the original mission had been working. The campaigners, along with many past students who are now pitching in, argue that this is because of the diverse student make-up, a direct consequence of the lack of fees, and thanks to 'incredible faculty', who also see the benefit in meritocracy.

“We need to find a self-sustaining equilibrium to fund our school, and spread this model to other universities,” said Casey Gollan, one of the occupiers. “We don't want to win the argument, just to fix the problem.”

This attitude of working to solve the problems that exist rather than shouting 'not fair' highlights both the importance that all involved place on their mission, but also their willingness to work alongside the administration to fix the undeniable funding gap. Thus far management seems unwilling to talk.

The institution is funded by tax relief, rent on property owned, and a large endowment from alumni and the community. The protesters believe that they can raise more funds themselves than the current administration is able to, and if this happens, there will be little the President and his team can say to stop them from enacting their demands and keeping tuition free for all. Based on the impressive dedication and organisation of those involved, I would not be surprised if they can.

The United States is not known for its affordable higher education opportunities, and increasingly access to a university education in the States seems to be for the privileged. And yet, Cooper Union today is still an exception, for now at least. If the students and faculty find a way to preserve the status quo, then they hope that students and faculties around the US will follow suit and create a fairer and more accessible college system.

In the United Kingdom, free education to undergraduate students is still very much in living memory for many, unlike for the majority of US citizens. Politicians and parties today telling students and school pupils that fees are a necessity themselves benefited from a system that ensured a degree was accessible to those who wanted to study, with money not being an issue. On a daily basis it is clear that students in the UK don't have it easy. There’s endless debt, high living costs, low employment for young people, and students in greater numbers turning to sex work to fund their studying.

The Cooper Union is one of the only schools where students can study for free in the USA, and they are fighting to protect this. We in the UK need to learn from this. Rather than blindly accepting the norm, the protesters are taking steps to protect what they have benefited from. It's about time we, alongside the generations in the UK sitting today in homes we will never own, in jobs we will never get, step up to the plate and do the same.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
musicBand's first new record for 20 years has some tough acts to follow
News
peopleAt least it's for a worthwhile cause
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Life and Style
Sexual health charities have campaigned for the kits to be regulated
healthAmerican woman who did tells parents there is 'nothing to be afraid of'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Newly Qualified Teachers

£90 - £115 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: We are currently looking fo...

Year 3/4 Teacher

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Job Share Year 3/4 Teacher...

Chemistry Teacher

£85 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunity for Secondary ...

English Teacher

£85 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunity for Secondary ...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments