UCSB academic workers strike. | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Last year’s union-backed strikes across University of California campuses won historic raises for its 48,000 academic workers, but UC campuses are now faced with the challenge of funding the wage increases set within those new labor contracts. 

Cuts to graduate student admissions are being considered as a potential avenue for university departments to be able to afford the increases, sprouting concerns from UC communities. Locally, UC Santa Barbara is still chewing over its options as it works out how to bankroll the pay hikes.

“This is a complex budgetary issue and our campus is still looking at the details of the agreements,” UCSB remarked in a statement to the Independent. “We are still working to understand the increased costs, and given that the contracts involve significant salary increases, it is expected that there will be a serious budgetary impact.” 

The new labor contracts include significant pay increases for academic workers, ranging from 20 percent to 80 percent depending on their position.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the Academic Senate chair at UCSB “estimated that the cost of pay hikes alone could spiral to more than $53 million over three years.” Susannah Scott, divisional chair of UCSB’s Academic Senate, also told the Times that UCSB’s “Chemical Engineering Department is considering reducing admission offers to graduate students from 75 or 80 to about 50,” and that her “colleagues across campus are also being ‘super conservative’ about taking on more students.” 

In its statement, UCSB said that the campus cannot estimate what the specific budgetary impact of the pay increases will be at this time. Funds for the different positions come from different sources — while teaching assistants are paid by their department, budgeted by the university, pay for graduate student researchers is usually funded by external grants. 

“Faculty with external grant funding will have to determine how many Researchers, Graduate Student Researchers, and Postdoctoral Fellows their grants will support,” UCSB stated. “Deans and department chairs normally spend the winter and spring months on curricular planning, and part of their analysis always involves determining priorities for available graduate student instructor positions.”

Meanwhile, speculation has been brewing across UC campuses over the potential impact of reducing graduate student admissions, such as larger undergraduate class sizes with fewer graduate student instructors to teach them.

A survey conducted by UAW 2865, the union team representing 19,000 academic student employees, found that graduate workers from 89 departments spanning all 10 UC campuses indicated that they had heard of plans to reduce enrollment, increase class sizes, and shrink research groups for the 2023-2024 academic year. 

“Now that we have made some progress on pay, not that we are all the way to a living wage, the University is freaking out,” said Joe Costello, a graduate student researcher in UCSB’s physics department. “But they can’t afford to cut graduate enrollment without also cutting undergrad enrollment or having their reputation suffer.” 

Faculty members, and academic workers like Costello, have expressed concern that reducing graduate enrollment would undercut the UC’s goals to increase student accessibility, as well as hinder research output, and lead to a decrease in the university’s ability to provide quality, personalized education. 

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According to Ryan King, a spokesperson for the UC Office of the President (UCOP), the UCOP “has not provided any guidance to campuses instructing them to reduce student enrollment in the upcoming budget year 2023-24.” King said that the contracts are in the final budgeting and initial implementation phase across the UC system, so “it would be premature to speculate on any impacts on enrollment.

“We will continue our conversations with each location to understand where there are needs and how best UCOP can support the implementation of this vital contract,” King said. 

Key funding elements come in the form of one-time tuition increases for incoming classes and the ongoing budget compact between the State of California and the UC, with Governor Gavin Newsom providing annual state funding increases of 5 percent to the university’s budget through 2027.

In exchange for the increases in funding, the UC committed to achieving various goals, such as annual increases to both undergraduate and graduate student enrollment, seeking to expand UC enrollment by 20,000 students by 2030. Enrollment cuts, according to UAW leadership, would sabotage the university’s commitment to expand graduate student enrollment.

However, increasing expenses still present a challenge for UC campuses, which have to balance the rising cost to enroll graduate students with that of paying graduate student workers. Costello explained that none of UC’s funding sources are “particularly flexible in the face of a sudden raise of costs,” but to keep up their reputation, campuses like UCSB cannot “afford to cut back either.

“The reputation of UCSB has gone way up in the past 20 or so years, due in large part to the research that comes out of here,” Costello said. “Part of keeping your high rankings and reputation is keeping a reasonable ratio of Professors and TAs to students, something which UCSB is already struggling to do.”

Other UCSB graduate student workers were not happy with the contracts to begin with. Janna Haider, a teaching assistant in UCSB’s history department, called the “modest” wage increases for academic student employees “a disappointment, especially here in Santa Barbara.”

Haider is one of the union bargaining team members at UCSB and other UC campuses who voted against the new contract because of what they viewed as the contract’s shortcomings, including wages that do not adequately address rent burden in places with exorbitant housing costs such as Santa Barbara.

“Second, the university’s own pricey investments elsewhere are a far bigger burden on its budget than grad student salaries ever will be,” Haider continued.

The “other investments” Haider is referring to include raises for chancellors across campuses, including a more than 20 percent raise for UCSB chancellor Henry Yang last year, the UC investing $4 billion in the venture capital firm Blackstone, and the time and money UCSB has put into the ongoing Munger Hall dorm project. 

“As long as the university keeps accepting more undergraduates than its campuses can support, somebody has to teach their discussion sections,” Haider said. “They need us, and if they choose to … say that they can’t accept more graduate students because of a raise in our contract that lifts nobody out of rent burden, that’s their choice, but it’s a deeply transparent falsehood.”

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