According to UH, it's a simple quid pro quo copyright assignment in exchange for education: "The University is providing you with a valuable opportunity to learn, grow and create during the course. Only a portion of the cost of providing courses is covered by your tuition and fees. Universities commonly use earnings from the licensing or sale of intellectual property to help cover their operating costs." UH has also said that it will use its rights to protect UH's reputation, in other words, to make sure students don't go submitting works to festivals, posting them on YouTube, sending them to prospective employers, and so on, without UH permission. If any university tried to control the release and distribution of a professor's latest book, such a policy would immediately be recognized for the censorship that it is. Too bad that recognition doesn't extend to students.
UH has tried to downplay the significance of the agreement, assuring creative arts students that "it is [already] University policy that things created by students — and usually faculty too — during their work at the University are owned by the University." But if UH already owned the works, the assignment agreement would not be necessary. And, in fact, UH's general copyright policy, like that of most U.S. universities, is that students own copyright in the traditional creative works.
Equally disturbing, UH has also insisted that the student projects are "works for hire." A work for hire is normally a work created by an employee in the course of her employment or specially commissioned from an independent contractor. Students are rarely employees in any relevant sense and, even if we assume that a student film project qualifies as a commissioned work (a big assumption), that project could only be a "work for hire" if there's a written agreement saying so. In other words, the work is only a work for hire if the student agrees that it is. But UH implies to students that the agreement just codifies what is already true, rather than creating a whole new set of rights and obligations.
In the end, though, UH may be giving its students a useful, if unfortunate, lesson in copyright realities. RIAA/MPAA rhetoric equating copyrights with artists' rights notwithstanding, copyright law has historically done more to reward owners — the people that own the rights in creative works — than authors — the people who make the work and then, all too often, sign away their rights to it for a pittance.
But these students will learn this lesson soon enough, once they start working professionally; it would be nice if their teachers and mentors gave them a little time to learn their craft first. Some educators do: such prestigious institutions as UCLA, Loyola Marymount, and the Brooks Institute of Photography don't require assignment. UH (and USC) should rethink this absurd policy — surely the possibility of owning the rights to the early work of the next George Lucas or Steven Spielberg isn't worth treating creative students like (ill-paid) hired help.