Tuition waivers have long been an important issue for graduate employees at the University of Illinois. As such, the recent arbitration victory for the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) against the UIUC administration marks the beginning of another long battle regarding tuition waivers at UIUC.
The timeline for this arbitration victory in particular dates back several years. In November of 2009, over 1,000 GEO members went on strike to prevent the reduction or elimination of tuition waivers for graduate employees. This was the fifth largest work stoppage in the United States in 2009. The GEO won contract language protecting tuition waivers for current and future Teaching and Graduate Assistants at UIUC.
However, in the summer of 2010, the GEO learned of a policy change affecting tuition waivers for incoming graduate employees in several departments in the College of Fine and Applied Arts (FAA). Effective fall of 2010, incoming graduate employees in these departments were no longer granted waivers for out-of-state tuition. Even with temporary scholarships, many Fine and Applied Arts graduate employees, earning between $7,000.00 and $9,000.00 per academic year, were left with additional fees totaling up to $1,000.00. The majority of these students already struggle with some of the lowest wages on campus.
Longstanding practice in these departments had been to cover full tuition, since many graduate students come to UIUC from out-of-state. Unlike at many other universities, gaining in-state residency for tuition purposes at UIUC requires that students live and work in the state for at least one year before beginning their education. The caveat, of course, is that employment cannot be through the university.
This change in tuition waiver policy in FAA was a clear violation of the GEO’s contract with the Illinois Board of Trustees. So in 2010, the GEO filed a grievance alleging a contract violation, while GEO members launched a public awareness campaign that included email and letter drives, communication with elected officials, testimony to the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, and other events.
On September 18, 2011, an independent arbitrator declared the University’s tuition waiver policy to be in violation of its contract with the GEO. In addition, the arbitrator ordered the U of I administration to make whole any harm done to graduate employees.
This arbitration victory marks a significant achievement for GEO members. Not only does the ruling secure tuition waivers as a benefit of employment for graduate employees, which is absolutely necessary to maintain accessibility to public higher education at UIUC; it also helps protect the arts from budgetary cutbacks.
Tuition waivers are a benefit of employment, which represent no cost to the University. Preventing the reduction of tuition waivers will preserve the quality of education at Illinois, while protecting vital labor standards. As University administrators have affirmed multiple times, tuition waivers are essential to Illinois’ status as a premier public research university. By moving to reduce tuition waivers from incoming graduate employees, the UIUC administration signaled a clear lack of support for the arts at UIUC, which is home to some of the most highly regarded programs in arts and humanities in the country.
This is yet another example of flawed budget priorities at UIUC, where the most vulnerable members of the University community are frequently asked to shoulder the burdens of budget shortfalls. Restricting access to graduate education to only in-state students and to out-of-state students who can afford tuition would reduce diversity among instructors at UIUC, which would lessen the value of an undergraduate education.
“This ruling is significant not only for the GEO, but for higher education unions throughout the country,” said Michael Verderame, GEO Grievance Officer. “The arbitrator affirmed that our contract operates as it would for any other union. The university can’t just ignore the contract by claiming it doesn’t apply to incoming students.”
While the GEO has much cause to celebrate, the story of tuition waivers and the arts at UIUC is not over. The GEO is entering another bargaining year. According to GEO Co-President Miriam Larsen, “based on the effort UIUC officials have put into defending their reduction of employee waivers in violation of its contractual agreements, we anticipate that tuition waivers will be a major subject of bargaining in 2012. Our members are fully committed to protecting the tuition waivers that make a high quality graduate education accessible to a diverse student body.”
For more information, please contact Rodrigo Pacheco-McEvoy, GEO Communications Officer, at Rodrigo.firstname.lastname@example.org. More information can also be found on the GEO website at www.uigeo.org.