In light of increased tuition fees, budget cuts, and denied unionization rights, graduate workers in the American higher education system are rallying together. The coronavirus pandemic has forced college and university administrations to make difficult decisions, including a decline in staff and faculty positions due to the decrease in student enrollment and public funding.
According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollment of postsecondary students at institutions fell by 2.5% compared to 2019. Public two-year institutions experienced a significant drop in undergraduate freshman enrollment, contributing to the decrease.
In addition, US universities and colleges saw a decline of more than 188,000 employees between February and November 2020. Graduate workers at the University of New Mexico have been fighting the administration’s attempts to prevent them from organizing unions. The school administration argued that graduate workers are not workers, hence they do not have the right to unionize.
Ramona Malczynski, a graduate worker in geography and environmental studies and a union organizer expressed that they face adverse working conditions such as being overworked without proper compensation, inadequate healthcare benefits with no dental or vision coverage, and no protection against discrimination.
Despite announcing their intent to unionize in October and securing the majority of signed union authorization cards by December, the University of New Mexico declined to acknowledge the union’s existence. A university spokesperson stated that whether graduate students are eligible to unionize is subject to an undecided legal question.
Furthermore, budget cuts have resulted in layoffs of workers in various departments. Marquette University in Wisconsin laid off 39 employees in January, while Ithaca College in New York is cutting 116 non-tenure faculty positions within a year. Faculty, students, and alumni have held protests against the cuts and firings, requesting transparency and a more collaborative approach to finding alternative solutions.
Juan Arroyo, a politics professor at Ithaca College for 20 years, is expected to lose his position when his current contract expires. He expressed concern about his future plans, stating that issues such as social security and Medicare have become a priority.
In response to the cuts, the college administrations stated the need to align academic offerings with student interest and institutional need.
University students and staff members are currently organizing protests against the excessively high tuition fees during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several universities, such as Georgetown and Williams College, have already lowered their tuition and fees as most student activities are cancelled, and many classes are conducted online. In response, graduate workers at the University of Chicago have organized a pledge to refuse payment of student fees, which currently amount to $416 per quarter. They have cited the reduced services for students due to the pandemic, as well as the high cost of the fee, as the reasons behind their decision. Over 600 graduate workers and students have already signed the pledge.
Laura Colaneri, a graduate worker in Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian studies, stated that these issues have been ongoing for a long time and the pandemic has only brought them to the forefront. The tuition fees and other associated costs have been increasing continuously.
A University of Chicago spokesperson said that the student services fee provides access to many critical services. However, no comment was made as to how many services have been halted or limited due to the pandemic.
Over 1,000 students at Columbia University are currently withholding their spring semester tuition in protest. They are demanding a 10% cut in tuition fees and a 10% increment in financial aid. According to Becca Roskill, one of the organizers of the strike, this protest aims to counterbalance the idea that administrators should make financial decisions independently. The resources involved are associated with teaching by faculty and tuition fees from students.
Without any financial aid, tuition fees for undergraduate studies at Columbia University top $80,000 every year. The movement demanding a decrease in funding of campus police, divestment of school funds from fossil fuels, improvement of working conditions for both graduate and undergraduate workers, and transparency in university investments. Moreover, participants of the protest claim that the university has already imposed $150 in late fees for unpaid tuition.
Roskill stated that collective strength is the best safeguard against such measures. The strikers are determined to continue protesting, and strikers are also providing aid to anyone struggling to pay late fees. A representative of Columbia University hopes for an active discussion with the protestors on how to strengthen the university.