Much has been written on the potentially disastrous impacts of the proposed $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System and the “public authority” model: Students will face tuition increases and employees will face pay cuts, layoffs and loss of governance. As both students and employees of the university, graduate students are doubly targeted.
Graduate students are not a homogeneous group — conditions and experiences vary by type of degree, department, access to assistantships, the type of research, etc. But by and large, we have one feature in common: We are all pursuing specialized intellectual and professional training, and require academic, professional, research and mentorship resources in pursuit of this training. It is worth pointing out some of the many ways graduate students will be harmed by these proposals.
First: tuition increases. Many think tuition is not a crucial issue for graduate students, assuming that we are funded and our tuition waived for the entirety of our graduate career. In reality, funding packages vary substantially by department, and for many students the funding runs out before their degree is finished. For professional students and students in terminal master’s programs, there are few funding guarantees and scarce employment opportunities to begin with. Because our jobs are only semester or year-long, employment for many graduate assistants is precarious — one semester we may be employed, the next we may run out of luck. After regents gain full control over tuition-setting, tuition will skyrocket, and this will impact thousands of graduate students.
Increases in tuition coupled with loss of state aid will make it more difficult for departments to offer funded positions for graduate students. This will affect us in two possible ways — it may reduce the number of students who pursue graduate degrees or increase the student debt of those stalwart enough to continue. The likely impact of this would be a significant drop in the demographic of students who choose to pursue a graduate education, including first-generation students, working class students and students of color. Students would also be increasingly driven toward the fields considered most lucrative in a narrow financial sense.
Second, having fewer funded graduate students will strongly impact the entire university. It will curtail the university’s capacity to conduct research, and it will negatively impact the quality of education for undergraduates, as graduate students often have the most contact with undergrads.
Third, the cuts will likely result in lower appointment levels for graduate students. Many of us already teach full classes on a 33.3 percent appointment level — about 12.5 hours per week on paper, but often much more in practice as we are required to prepare for discussions, read all course material, attend all lectures, grade papers, meet with students, write exams, answer emails and so on.
In fact, most graduate students earn a wage well below the federal poverty guidelines, forcing many of us onto food stamps. Reducing appointment levels will not by itself reduce actual workload, but amount simply to a pay cut. Imposing more financial hardship on graduate students will make graduate school less and less accessible to working-class adults, and more possible only for students who feel comfortable taking on debt or have external financial support from parents or spouses.
Fourth, the cuts and the public authority model will also degrade the quality of our training. Such massive cuts to the university will significantly intensify work for all campus employees, including our faculty advisers. For graduate students, little is more important to our academic and intellectual training than this advising relationship. As budget cuts intensify our professors’ workloads, it becomes harder for them to give ample time to advising graduate students.
Finally, the budget proposal will accelerate the shift to “responsible budgeting,” whereby departments are awarded according to how many external grant dollars they win and how much undergraduate tuition revenue they bring in, rather than equitably distributing resources across departments. This means small departments that don’t easily win major research grants or have massive undergraduate majors, like African American Studies or Gender and Women’s Studies, will become even more vulnerable. Aside from the way that this will reduce job opportunities for teaching assistants, it also has significant implications for which research, teaching and services the university will consider valuable.
Graduate students, therefore, have much to lose in the proposed budget. The Teaching Assistants’ Association recognizes that faculty, staff, undergraduates and graduate students are UW and adopt the mantra “an injury to one is an injury to all.” Therefore, we oppose the proposed budget, both the $300 million cut as well as the proposed public authority model the UW System administration has pursued. If the budget will negatively impact you, contact the TAA to figure out how we can defend ourselves and our university.
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