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Grad Student Exploitation and the Diminishing Returns of Education
Two graduate students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa argue that school priorities need a major readjustment.
Reading time: 7 minutes.
Like most graduate students, we invested additional time and money in higher education believing it to be a pathway to financial security and a way to make a meaningful contribution to society.
However, our journeys through graduate education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa have shown us that it is increasingly a pathway toward low-pay labor, insecure employment, and financial precarity following graduation.
Put simply, we have found that the costs of graduate education are rising rapidly while the benefits are decreasing just as quickly.
The issues we face are not a stand-alone problem, but symptoms of a broad crisis in higher education.
If there is any solace in our situation, it is that we are not alone. The 5,772 graduate students at Manoa make up an integral part of the UH system.
It may seem obvious that graduate education is a necessary part of any research university. What is not so obvious, though, is that we are not only necessary as students, but also as labor.
Though statistics specifically for UH Manoa are not available, the Chronicle of Higher Education estimates that nearly 75 percent of all college courses in the U.S. are taught by adjunct (or non-tenured) faculty. Many of these adjuncts are graduate students hired as teaching assistants or part-time lecturers.
Additionally, many graduate students work as research assistants, contributing vital aid to important research projects. Our labor is an essential part of the university apparatus.
But who foots the bill?
Though graduate students are necessary to keep the engine of higher education running, we are generally exploited at American universities, and UH Manoa is no exception.
For those of us lucky enough to find it, graduate student employment at UH Manoa is low paying, generally less than $20,000 per year.
While this may seem like a significant sum for what is, theoretically, a part-time job, it is a rather low wage for individuals holding at least bachelors and, often masters degrees.
In fact, those who do not fit the ‘traditional’ student mold (i.e. early-to-mid 20s, single, and childless) struggle to survive on Graduate Assistant pay, which was increased for the first time in eight years in 2013.
Most graduate students are forced to take out loans that build upon debt acquired during undergraduate education.
Many of us face debts in excess of $100,000 upon graduation, when entering a job market offering mostly part-time, low-wage adjunct jobs.
Advanced degrees are supposed to grant an educational advantage for those holding them, but it seems now they create a burden.
While things are scary on the outside, they are not much better on the inside. Graduate Assistants have little job security.
We must re-apply for our jobs each year, with no assurance of being re-hired. In fact, in 2009, budget cuts gave the university justification to close the independent ombudsman’s office, which was charged with objectively processing student grievances.
Now, departments may simply non-renew students who complain of mistreatment by supervisors or ask for raises, and such students have little recourse.
Finally, graduate students are banned from collective bargaining by HRS 89-6, which excludes “students of state institutions” from any bargaining unit.
Though a student survey by the UH Manoa Graduate Student Organization showed pervasive support for unionization, administrators have repeatedly testified against a graduate student union.
The University of Hawaii at Manoa, like most other large universities, relies on graduate student labor, but fails to support us with a living wage or protection from labor abuses.
Thankfully, UH Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple has made strides to advocate for graduate students. Soon after his appointment, Chancellor Apple restructured graduate assistant pay scales, mandating that minimum pay rise to $19,500 by the 2014-15 academic year.
We are quite grateful for this, but it remains a paltry wage for highly educated, vital members of the UH system.
Consider this wage in comparison to the $85,725 in revenue generated by a graduate student instructor who in one year teaches 75 students (estimated using only in-state tuition figures). Not even a quarter of that money goes to the instructor.
Moreover, Chancellor Apple only funded these higher wages for two years, meaning each department must fund these salaries within their already-shrinking budgets. This most likely means that departments will cut the number of graduate assistantships they offer, effectively shrinking programs.
Essentially, graduate students have fallen prey to the rising cost of higher education. State and federal politicians bemoan this problem as if universities caused it themselves. This is a half-truth. Large salaries for high-ranking administrators and professors in a very few high-paying disciplines surely contribute to rising costs, but bloated athletics budgets and unnecessary construction projects (e.g. Manoa’s new campus center) also contribute.
To boot, politicians often lithely discuss this without mentioning two important issues — reductions in subsidies for higher education and the use of pseudo-corporate management in the academy.
For example, Hawaii state appropriations for UH as a proportion of the total budget have fallen from about 13 percent in 1990 to 6.9 percent in 2013. Conversely, the state has increased its funding for the department of public safety (i.e. prisons and police) by 30 percent, from 3 percent to 3.9 percent of total appropriations in that time.
Furthermore, in 1996, the state cut the UH budget by approximately $60 million. Soon after, the Hawaii Tourism Authority was created, and granted a similarly sized budget. Over the past few decades, the state has divested from higher education while investing in prisons, police, and an unsustainable and inequitable tourism-based economy.
In a complimentary move, universities are increasingly run like businesses. This is exemplified by the expensive practice of hiring of business executives as administrators, the elimination of tenure-track positions, a concomitant reliance on part-time faculty, and increasing labor loads for faculty. Employing this corporate paradigm basically means legislators and administrators ignore the intrinsic, collective value of higher education, instead concentrating on cutting costs and increasing production in the form of diplomas issued. Seeing an educated populace as the key to national prosperity, Americans once made education a collective, rather than individual, cost. These trends, and others, mark an abandonment of those progressive ideals.
Our plight at UH Manoa and the state of higher education may seem like a limited issue, only affecting students and academics. However, everyone should care about this issue. Aspiring college students, young or old, should care about this. Parents should care about this. And, most of all, wider society should care about this.
Without a strong, public higher education system, innovative research will be abandoned, a college degree will be less valuable, social mobility will decrease, and civic involvement will be stifled.
In short, the general welfare will suffer dearly. Clearly it already has; inequality in America is at an all-time high, social mobility is flagging, and we are beginning to fall behind other countries that more seriously invest in research and education.
The exploitation and mistreatment of graduate students at UHM is problematic, yet it is merely a symptom of the larger educational crisis. Because of this, the solution to this problem must be multitudinous.
Oversight over administrative spending and salaries along with a transparent budgetary process would likely be helpful. Perhaps it is not necessary or wise to pay a university president nearly half a million dollars.
Additionally, careful examination of athletics budgets might yield improvement. Many find it shameful that the UH football coach is the highest paid state employee. However, most of all, Hawaii needs to reinvest in higher education, especially when one considers the challenges that lie ahead.
Education is more important than imprisoning people, it is more important than corralling the homeless, it is more important than building an unsustainable tourist economy. Our policies and our budget should reflect that.
About the authors: Nick Chagnon and John Sweeney are both graduate students at UH Manoa. Nick is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology while John is a Ph.D candidate in political science. They serve together as co-chairs of advocacy for the UHM Graduate Student Organization.*
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