Universities need to deal with trainee compensation
Unionization efforts are readout of a big problem
As I’ve written elsewhere, the poor compensation that universities are providing to graduate students and postdocs is a ticking time bomb that is going off. In their effort to always do more and more science, universities have pushed graduate student salaries down to maximize the amount of work done. Now graduate students are speaking out through unionization efforts and exposing the fact that the institutions are trapped because they have allocated their resources to so many projects that they can’t find the money to fix the problem.
The Chronicle of Higher Ed has a good story out about this where I’m quoted extensively. Universities like to hang their hat on the specious idea that graduate students are only employed 20 hours per week as a way of dodging the idea that they are full-time employees that shouldn’t be able to unionize. Here’s what I had to say about that:
The idea that the students are not working full time just doesn’t ring true. Here what else I said:
As Thorp sees it, there is “no principled argument that says that the graduate students are not full-time employees and that they’re not making a major contribution to the research effort of the university.”
Conflicts over graduate-student working conditions, Thorp said, often stem from the fact that colleges try “to use the resources they have to do as many things as possible.
As higher ed has been forced to do more with less over the years, institutions have increasingly relied on lower-wage labor from graduate workers and adjunct faculty to make the budget math work. Changing that balance would be “a hard battleship to turn,” he said.
“It’s easy for the union to say, look, University X, you’ve got all these billions in your endowment. Why can’t you use that to increase the salaries of the graduate students?” Thorp said. “The answer is, they could, but they’d have to stop doing something else. And they’re not very good at doing that.”
It’s worth reading the whole article, and also this piece by Sudip Parikh and Shirley Malcom. The culture wars are getting the attention, but this financial squeeze coming from graduate students demanding adequate compensation is a hugely important dynamic in higher ed right now.