UT graduate students rally for higher pay, more tuition help

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Hundreds of graduate students and supporters rallied on campus Wednesday to ask the University of Texas at Austin for better pay.

These students and faculty members who support them gathered at the heart of campus, chanting and bearing signs that said things like, “Stop being jerks, pay us fairly for our work.” This group marched up to the UT tower and around campus, explaining that they’ve delivered a petition with 3,000 signatures to the UT administration. The petition calls for the university to help close the gap of what graduate students are being asked to pay and to respond to the graduate students’ requests by May 8. 

“I think it was really a wonderful event, we had hundreds of people show up, lots of graduates across the university and lots of faculty and undergraduates,” said Sam Law, a doctoral student in UT’s Anthropology department.  

Law explained that in the past couple of years, the anthropology department has been able to cover the tuition graduate students are asked to pay, but this year they couldn’t afford to. Even with the graduate student tuition reduction benefit, Law wound up having to pay $300 a semester in tuition, which he says is significantly less than the $1,000 + other UT graduate students find themselves having to pay. 

Law explained that he is given $1,500 per month as payment for his work teaching at UT, so the bill for $300 is a noticeable hit. 

“This is an existential problem for the university,” Law said. 

According to UT’s numbers for the Spring of 2019, there are 10,022 graduate students there, which includes Masters students, Ph.D. students, and professional graduate students. 

Grad students across the country are paid stipends to help undergraduates as teaching assistants and assistant instructors while they do research and complete coursework. UT graduate students say their pay is not enough to live on in Austin and it hasn’t kept up with other top universities in the U.S.

The group Underpaid at UT was behind this rally Wednesday. They’re asking for an increase in the tuition reduction benefit, which in the past has covered all of a graduate student’s tuition, but now graduate students are being asked to pay to fill in the gap. 

As the cost of a degree has increased, the benefit has stayed the same, said Cassandra Donnelly, chair of the Graduate Student Labor Conditions Committee in the Graduate Student Assembly at UT. That means graduate students have to foot around $1,000 a semester that’s not covered — not bad for an undergraduate degree, but a burden graduate students at other similar universities don’t have to contend with.

Donnelly has been fighting for better pay for the last year and a half and told KXAN there’s a misconception about the work that grad students do.

“We are not minor league baseball players trying to make it in the big leagues,” she said.

Graduate work is important to the daily functions of the university and undergraduate programs, she said. Her group’s recent survey of students working toward advanced degrees found 65% make less than $18,000 a year, $7,000 less than what they consider a living wage.

The graduate students said Wednesday that while 20 or 25 years ago $18,000 may have been a living wage in Austin, today it’s not. 

The university acknowledges its graduate pay has fallen behind other schools in recent years; UT recently established the Graduate Education Task Force to study that and other problems, and in the group’s introduction online, it points out the university needs to find ways to support students.

“In many cases, the raises we’ve provided over the years have not kept pace with inflation—a situation that increasingly impedes student recruiting and negatively affects current students,” the introduction states.

A full report from the task force is due this fall.

The university is putting up $10 million in one-time funds for use by the task force, a significant portion of which it believes will go to increasing stipends. That’s enough to get the minimum graduate stipend to $20,000 a year, Donnelly said, but an additional $10 million is needed to reach their $25,000 goal.

More one-time funds will be available in the future, the task force says, but Donnelly wants to see a dedicated funding stream to ensure the raises are permanent.  

Changes are necessary, she said, because with low pay and rising costs, advanced degrees are becoming harder to pursue for people who don’t already have money.

“People join academia because they want to teach, and they want to teach because they want to help people,” she said. “That’s what’s driving the participation, and that’s why people want to go to school. And anyone should be able to do that.”

Graduate student advocates tell KXAN that most other tier-one research universities do not expect their graduate students to pay tuition. 

Underpaid UT says their survey found that of the third of graduate students who turn down offers with UT, do so because of the admission funding they receive. 

Sparking concerns for faculty members 

Several faculty members from different departments explained to KXAN at the rally Wednesday that they’ve seen great candidates turn down UT’s offer, instead opting for schools that could cover more of their expenses. Some faculty explained that there are programs which allow students to compare financial offers and stipends between the universities they’re looking at, and UT’s numbers just aren’t as appealing. 

“We have many many wonderful graduate students in our department and we couldn’t function without them,” explained Lesley Dean-Jones, Chair of UT’s Department of Classics. “They are doing cutting edge research, they excite their own students, they’re inspiring teachers, they bring majors to our department.”

“They are the roots and the trunk of the tree of the university, they are vastly underpaid,” said Dean-Jones adding that it is “ridiculous” that a school like UT with such a large endowment would have ” one of the worst pays for our graduate student workers.” 

She explained that the tuition reduction benefit has “hardly moved in 10 years” while the cost of living and the cost of tuition have increased, leaving a greater gap for students to pay. 

“Now they are being asked to pay for the privilege of being here and I just think that’s just wrong, that’s absolutely wrong, when the university has so much money, that they’re cutting and dicing the graduate students,” she said. 

Last year, the tuition gap left over for students in her department was $125 per student per semester, this year it’s $211, Dean-Jones said.  At the moment, the Classics department pays for that gap in cost for students. 

“But we can’t carry on paying it, we don’t have that much money, last year it was $7,000 to cover it, this year it’s $11,000,” she said, explaining that the graduate students voted themselves to reduce the amount of money they had for travel reimbursements so that this gap would be covered. 

“It’s nickel-and-diming the poorest people at the university and on the other end we’re paying millions of dollars for initiatives that quite often don’t go anywhere,” Dean-Jones said. “It’s as if you have a tree and you put baubles on it and lights on it to make it look good, and you neglect to water and fertilize it.”

Dean-Jones worries that this will not only impact the quality of future graduate students, but the experience for undergraduate students who take their classes.

She noted that UT alumni donations come  from primarily from people who got their undergraduate degrees there who, “want the value of the degree to maintain the same.”

“For that to happen,” Dean-Jones said, “we have to maintain the quality of students we currently have and we will not do so unless something is done about graduate student stipends and the tuition benefit.”

“These are valid concerns” 

At the rally many of the students present commented on how UT is one of the wealthiest and top-ranked universities in the country, and that more of UT’s money should go to graduate students.

A UT spokesperson explained that while UT is a well-endowed university, many people often confuse the endowment numbers from the entire UT system of schools with those of UT Austin. Bloomberg reported in December that the UT System’s endowment surpassed $31 billion, making it the second largest endowment in U.S. higher education. But UT Austin explained, that $31 billion is divided up between more than 200,000 students at the many universities that make up the system. 

“Graduate students are vital to UT, providing the foundation for world-changing research and often teaching and mentoring undergraduates,” said Mark J.T. Smith, dean of the Graduate School and senior vice provost for academic affairs. “UT is committed to increasing graduate student compensation. This is an issue facing universities across the U.S.”

Smith explained that the task force is still working on finding solutions to helping graduate students. He noted that some departments at UT have already offered more tuition support for Teaching Assistants  and have “increased wages substantially.” He added that other departments “are in the process of doing so.”

“When the task force has concluded its work, we expect to have recommendations to equip the colleges and schools to move forward with sustainable solutions for addressing competitive support of graduate education,” Smith said. 

UT spokesperson J.B. Bird explained that UT estimates that the cost of living for graduate students is $19,500 per year. He acknowledged that for many students their graduate student stipends may not cover that amount or only cover it by a small margin. 

“These are valid concerns they are bringing up, it’s really important, it’s an issue the university wants to fix, they formed a task force about five months ago to get on top of this, and we really want to address the concerns that were raised here today,” Bird said. 

He wanted to make sure that graduate students understand that university leaders paid attention to the protest Wednesday and are listening to student concerns. 

He couldn’t say whether the base stipend rate that the students are asking for of $25,000 would be feasible and deferred to the task force for that information.  Bird explained the task force was not planning to have their results ready by May 8, and that it’s unclear yet whether UT will be able to respond to the graduate students’ demands in full by that date. 

“But we’re gonna want to respond,” Bird said. “We’re going to want to let the students know,  you know, where we’re at in the process, hopefully, we can give them some encouraging news, but the solutions we’re looking at are sustainable solutions that address a very important problem they brought up for the long-term that won’t be fixed by May 8.”

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