SAN FRANCISCO - Students at California's public universities rallied across the state Thursday to protest massive budget cuts and fee hikes they say has damaged a system of higher education long the envy of the nation.

More than 100 such events in over 30 states were scheduled for a Day of Action in support of public education, according to student websites. The demonstrations were prompted by tuition hikes and program cuts that reflect financial problems affecting nearly every U.S. state.

In California, dozens of students as well as faculty and staff who also have been hit by cuts, chanted and picketed at the University of California at Berkeley, the university said.

Students at California State, Fullerton, said they had taken over a building there, and the University of California at Santa Cruz sent an alert to faculty and students to avoid the main campus due to protests.

In all, thousands of students at campuses across California were expected to protest.

Students are not alone in their dissatisfaction with cutbacks. Polls show voters see California headed the wrong way with a gaping state budget shortfall, legislative gridlock, slashed social services and double-digit joblessness.

Marchers may be the vanguard of a debate about whether California should temper its aspirations or pay more to maintain universities and other California hallmarks such as state parks and social services.

For the students at the (University of California) now, this is our political moment, said Jesse Cheng, a nonvoting student member of the university's governing board.

Fee hikes of more than 30 percent that lift education costs to over $10,000 per year will make the university system more costly than rivals in other states, students said.

Financial pressure is mounting in other states, as well. Illinois' state government faces an $11 billion deficit, forcing the University of Illinois system to weigh tuition hikes of up to 20 percent for incoming freshmen, said Stanley Ikenberry, interim president of the university's campus at Urbana-Champaign, in a newspaper interview this week.


Under the state budget proposed in January by New York Governor David Paterson, state and city universities, including community colleges, would lose $208 million in funds, and tuition aid would be cut to help close a state deficit pegged at $7.4 billion. The budget gap has grown since then to around $9 billion.

California did not even charge university tuition in the 1960s, when state investment built campuses into national-level institutions, highways linking population centers and a sprawling network of reservoirs, canals and pumping stations to deliver water to distant cities and farms.

The state's public university system has long led other U.S. campuses in activism dating to the mid-1960s, when UC students protested on behalf of civil rights and free speech and against the war in Vietnam.

California students also say big fee hikes are making it more difficult for less-affluent, minority students to attend, adding to the effects of a 1996 state ballot initiative that banned affirmative action at state institutions.

Beyond the fact that there isn't money, there is a sense that education has become a private good, University of California spokesman Pete King said.

The cash-strapped state has cut support, and so university fees have risen, he said. Fee hikes will take university costs above those of the four state schools it compares itself with, such as in Virginia and Michigan, the university said.

For Hoover Institution scholar Bill Whalen, who once worked for moderate Republican Governor Pete Wilson, the university's issues reflect an overreaching by the state on services and promises -- without the financial power to do so.

We are at a time where we can't afford this path of spending, we just can't keep up with it. It's like the Soviets trying to compete in the arms race, he said, arguing that the university and state needed to clarify their missions.

But Berkeley student and organizer Ricardo Gomez said the student movement could shift Californians away from conservative economic policies and toward more support for its universities.

These crises are going to offer the electorate and people of California an opportunity to once again to stand up for what we believe in, he said.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Stern in Chicago; Editing by Philip Barbara)