Staff Ed: The UC system must address the needs of its graduate students

Art by Claire Hwa

On Nov. 14, what The Guardian is now calling the largest strike of academic workers in U.S. history began across ten University of California campuses. Since then, postdoctoral scholars and academic student employees, including teaching assistants, graduate students and academic researchers, have formed picket lines — human boundaries of strikers poised at the entrances of UC campuses –– and marched on and around UC campuses.

It is clear what these impassioned students and researchers are crying for; their demands are fairly simple –– higher wages ($54,000 a year for graduate students and $70,000 for postdoctoral students), improved systems for child care, parental leave, transportation and healthcare.

With a workload so vast –– graduate students and academic workers being responsible for teaching classes, grading papers and conducting research –– these demands are entirely justified. This is what makes the current average wages of graduate students, $24,000 per year, so ridiculous. Factoring in the astronomical cost of living in UC cities, these low wages are quickly eaten away, forcing many students to work multiple jobs or sleep in their cars.

So it is with signage emphasizing that “living wages are a right not a privilege,” the strikers draw a distinct line: that a university cannot be world-class if it fails to support its students. As the people who will go on to teach the next generation, the UC’s graduate students call foul.

These clear demands have indeed found success, mainly in the form of a tentative agreement reached on Nov. 29 between the UC and the population of striking postdoctoral students and academic researchers, granting this population significantly higher wages.

However, to some employees of the UC system, the strikers’ demands seem to be irresponsible, dramatic and ultimately hasty oversights of the capabilities of the UC system.

This holds some truth, as the wages students are fighting for are steep, competing with or even surpassing some private universities and graduate student wage pacemakers like Stanford. Though the UC board has remained resolute in its stance on not raising the wages of some 32,000 graduate students, something is inherently different in this November’s strike from previous graduate student outcries. No matter how much UC officials stamp their feet, a few things are almost ironically clear: by not supporting their students, the UC system is effectively preventing others from attending classes and completing midterms. Students are not in classrooms, midterms are being canceled and the future of UC class structures remains foggy.

Amid this chaos, The Falconer wonders what can actually change. High school students nationwide can attest to the insurmountable desire to apply to and attend one of the nine UC campuses, and it seems unlikely that a student accepted to one of these world-class universities would decline to attend based on the inequitable treatment of graduate students.

Moreover, concerns about the effects of such drastic wage increases are pertinent to the eventual effectiveness of the strike. A number of faculty members bring up how the increase in graduate student pay would adversely affect them, as more than 60% of the striking workers’ salaries are paid primarily from the federal grants acquired by faculty, according to the L.A. Times. However, most faculty members who expose this problem instead pose other solutions, like lowered tuition costs or requesting larger federal grants from the government.

Still, even for a corporation-style university system like the UC with a monstrous multi-billion dollar budget, there is a surprising inability –– or perhaps indisposition –– to make changes in the way money is spent on their campuses.

But there is one unavoidable factor in these recent strikes: the enormous scale and volume of them, 48,000 voices strong, challenging the UC system in its entirety. They are a necessary move on the part of UC students.

Perhaps the best option to ease the worries of faculty and struggling students is to stage a reset of the UC’s spending priorities. The shifting of funding from parts of the UC administration budget to the disadvantaged graduate students could provide a relatively easy form of aid.

It is steps like this strike, enacted by passionate students, that will allow the UC campuses to truly advance and continue to produce the research and students that are currently changing the world.

It is becoming clear to onlookers, students and administration alike that the UC system can not and will not exist sustainably without the changes this strike is fighting for.

786 thoughts on “Staff Ed: The UC system must address the needs of its graduate students

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