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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Guest opinion: UC must expand graduate student support, benefits

Two weeks ago, while the UC Regents were voting on additional increases and bonuses for nearly 40 senior executives, the university’s leadership also heard a discouraging report finding that UC significantly lags behind its competitors in compensation for graduate student assistants.

As the report by Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies Steven Beckwith makes clear, there is a real danger that UC is losing its ability to compete for top graduate students. The yearly stipend of UC graduate students is $1,000 less than that of graduate students at comparable top institutions. Unsurprisingly, a recent survey finds that prospective top graduate students have a decidedly negative perception of UC’s financial support for graduate students. In order to attract top students, UC needs to improve its funding packages.

What is most troubling is that the total amount of additional executive increases and bonuses the Regents have voted on this year, $11.5 million, is roughly the same amount of money it would take to close the funding gap cited by Beckwith when applied to the 12,000 academic student employees (teaching assistants, tutors and readers) currently bargaining for our sixth contract with UC.

If UC is to maintain excellence in research and teaching, it must improve support for graduate students. If the institution can find $11.5 million to continue increasing executive compensation, it can find at least that much to improve life for UC’s prized graduate students.

UC administrators’ continued prioritization of executives over quality education has led more than 6,000 members of UAW 2865-the union for academic student employees at UC-to sign on to a report card failing UC at maintaining quality during the budget crisis (see UCqualityeducation.org for more information) and calling on the administration to improve its performance.

Many graduate students work as academic student employees (ASEs) during our graduate education. And it’s ASEs at the UC who are responsible for a majority of the face-to-face teaching that makes UC a world-class public university: serving as instructors, leading discussion and lab sections, grading student work and tutoring. Undergraduate students deserve to be taught not just by the top faculty, but by top graduate students as well.

While pay is an important issue, we should also be extremely concerned about UC’s level of support for graduate students with children. This is particularly important if we hope to increase recruitment and retention of women in academic research. According to research by UC Berkeley Law professor Mary Ann Mason, the lack of family-friendly policies is an important factor in the loss of women from academia. While ASEs won significant gains in family leaves and a small childcare subsidy in our 2007 contract negotiations, there is still much improvement to be made.

We all know that the current budget climate is difficult. Many stakeholders in the UC system have been asked to make sacrifices over the past two years even as executives rack up bonuses and perks. But times of economic distress are when the institution must stick most strongly to our priorities. UC cannot sacrifice its core missions. It must prioritize teaching and research. To do this, UC must commit to recruiting the best graduate students and recognizing the importance of our work for UC.

The UC administration has an opportunity to make this commitment in the current contract negotiations with our union for ASEs. The result of these negotiations will be a contract that sets compensation levels for graduate students across the UC system. UC cannot pass up this opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to quality education. Increasing graduate student support is essential to ensuring that UC retains its role as a nationwide leader. To carry this out, UC should agree to a fair contract for ASEs.

CHRISTINE PETIT is the president of UAW Local 2865. She recently graduated from UC Riverside with a Ph.D. in sociology.


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