Graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin are in talks with the university about a graduate student bill of rights that would, among other things, establish a baseline for funding for graduate students. The university says it’s too soon to comment on the document, but student organizers at Texas and at other institutions are applauding a draft for its focus on both scholarly and economic issues -- even without a union.
“The idea for the whole baseline conversation is to help students have an appropriate cost of living standard,” said Columbia Mishra, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering at Texas and president of its Graduate Student Assembly, which is pushing the Bill of Rights .
Mishra continued: “Students are expected to be poor – we get that. But we don’t want to go into debt or be so stressed out that we’re not producing excellent research, like we are supposed to.”
The proposal also seeks to address concerns some graduate students have about being “reasonably” compensated for teaching – too much of which also can detract from finishing their dissertations, Mishra said.
It would also make more standard stipends across campus; currently, they vary widely. Mishra said she doesn't want to name a dollar goal up front, but wants the university to acknowledge that graduate students deserve a living wage.
The idea for a graduate students’ bill of rights isn’t novel, with institutions such as the University of Michigan and those within the University of California System, having drafts or established versions. But most existing bills focus on academic issues, such as transparency about time-to-degree and program completion rates, and student-advisor protocols. Texas’s bill of rights is about those issues, but also very much about students’ rights as workers – most notably the minimum stipend proposal.
The draft says graduate students have the right to “compensation that meets real living wage standards of a graduate student.”
Graduate student debt and the idea that even “fully funded” students can accrue tens of thousands of dollars of debt, or more, has gained increased attention in recent months, thanks in part to Karen Kelsky, a career consultant for Ph.D. students who writes the popular blog The Professor Is In . Kelsky, a frequent critic of labor management in academe, recently began a crowdsourcing  project about graduate student debt yielding some 2,200 responses that turn the notion of “fully funded” on its head. Some students reported having up to $250,000 in debt, even with free tuition and stipends.
One American studies Ph.D. who graduated from a public research institution last spring with $86,000 of debt, wrote: “I was fully funded at a public university through teaching and research assistantships. The loans were taken out for living expenses, especially in during unfunded summers.”
The graduate is now employed in an “insecure, adjunct-type position,” hoping to land a tenure-track job.
Kelsky said that the stories in the document show that “fully-funded” in the humanities and social sciences -- typically between $15,000 and $18,000 annually -- is “inadequate to cover basic expenses of an adult life, particularly for any student in a major city where rents are high, with dependents, or with a health issue.”
Graduate students often take out “modest” debt annually – about $10,000 – to cover summer expenses, and student fees not covered by the tuition waiver, Kelsky said. There are also “professionalization” expenses, such as travel to conferences for interviews.
The Texas document doesn’t propose a dollar amount for the baseline. Mishra said that because the cost of living changes from year to year, it’s best that in not be fixed in the document, but rather established and reestablished based on need through conversations with the administration.
At Texas currently, hourly pay rates are well above the minimum wage, but cover a wide range , according to the university pay scale (annual salaries listed are for 40 hours of work per week; most graduate students work about 20 hours, so earn half).
Last year, teaching assistant pay rates ranged from an average of $4,432 per semester total in the School of Information, to $9,668 per semester in the College of Pharmacy, according to more detailed information from the university. The lowest paid teaching assistant received $4,400, while the highest paid received $11,000.
Assistant instructor rates during that same period ranged from an average of $5,189 in the School of Information per semester, to $10,251 in the School of Nursing. The lowest paid assistant instructor received $5,141, while the highest paid received $11,220.
Graduate research assistant salaries ranged from an average of $5,205 in social work to $8,983 in pharmacy per semester. The lowest paid graduate research assistant received $4,734 for a semester, while the highest paid received $14,165.
As to what realistic baselines should look like, Kelsky said it should be “linked to the actual cost of living for the location.”
Citing a recent example of institution that has upped its stipends (at the expense of cutting admissions) to remain competitive, Kelsky pointed to Johns Hopkins University. The Baltimore institution recently said it will increase funding to $30,000 annually  for graduate students, but cut its admissions by 25 percent. Current students have protested the plan, saying they haven't seen proof that increasing stipends must come at the expense of reducing cohort size.
“My guess is that most minimums would fall between $20,000 and $30,000 if the actual cost of a frugal lifestyle were taken into account,” Kelsky said.
Mishra agreed, saying that parts of Austin are quickly turning into “prime real estate.”
Additional labor-related rights in the Texas document include those to: formal outlines of duties employees; refusal to work assignments not directly related to their academic duties; and a detailed description of workload sharing between student workers and professors.
Organizers outside of Texas, including those involved in union negotiations with their institutions, praised the Graduate Student Assembly's document as a way of getting at key labor issues even outside of a union framework. Texas does not permit unionization at its public universities.
Natasha Raheja, a Ph.D. candidate and teaching assistant in anthropology at New York University, where graduate students recently voted to form a union affiliated with the United Auto Workers, said she was "excited to see this kind of movement at UT." Raheja studied at Texas as an undergraduate and earned a master's degree there, and said her alma mater's bill of rights was indicative of the rising awareness of labor issues in higher education.
There are "peculiarities" about organizing at public and private institutions and in union-friendly states and elsewhere, said Raheja, a member of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, but there's overlap in what student workers at NYU and at Texas are seeking -- even if by different means. At NYU, however, a funding baseline is not part of the platform -- but full tuition remission for all working graduate students is. Raheja aslo noted that Texas's draft is much more academically-focused that the NYU platform, since union contracts typically focus exclusively on labor issues.
Molly Cunningham, an organizer with Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago, which has been trying to form a union there, said there’s “definitely a lot of overlap” between Chicago’s working platform and the Texas document, especially on the issues of compensation, equity and participating in institutional governance.
“These areas (living wage, equal and fair treatment, and right to representation) have generated a lot of conversation especially because we have been working on them and organizing around them without the formal right to negotiate,” she said via email. “They've taken shape in both campaigns to pressure the administration to improve wages, childcare, and healthcare, as well as projects to move forward the discussion on how experiences of race, gender, class, ability and nationality shape our work here.”
Although the Chicago groups believes formal union recognition “would really leverage our capacity to actually see some policy changes and make a substantive difference in the quality of life for graduate student workers,” Cunningham said it will be keeping an eye on the Texas process to see how effective it is. Chicago graduate students had been counting on a long awaited decision from the NLRB in favor of NYU graduate student organizers to seek the right to hold union elections on their campus, which would have reversed an earlier board decision that bars graduate students at private institutions from organizing. But after eight years, NYU graduate students brokered their own deal with the administration, withdrawing their case from the NLRB, and graduate students elsewhere have had to rethink their strategies .
Like Raheja, Cunningham also said she saw the Texas document as proof of the growing contingent academic labor movement, including graduate students and adjuncts.
“It's excellent it's happening across campuses, it'll allow us to draw connections, and think about the long-term picture in higher ed,” she said.
A Texas spokesman declined to comment on the student bill of rights, since it’s still in draft form.
But Mishra said administrators have so far been supportive of the process and “seem to be on board.” Ultimately, she said she’s like to put a final draft out for a vote and seek official ratification from the university, all the way up to the Board of Trustees, similar to the Graduate Student Assembly’s constitution.
But in the meantime, she said, even having open conversations about stipends another concerns addressed in the document still benefits graduate students.
“This document is already powerful,” she said.