UIUC Denies Tuition Waivers to Fine Arts Grad Students

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Last November the Graduate Employees’ Organization
(GEO) of UIUC went on strike over a single issue: tuition
waivers. After two days of marching in the cold and drizzling
rain, the union’s bargaining team was able to secure
the coverage of full tuition waivers for its members.
This fight had begun the semester before, in spring 2009,
when the union was informed of
potential changes to the university’s
tuition waiver policy. Administrators
proposed the idea of raising the minimum
teaching appointment required
for tuition waiver allocation. While
the practice had been to give any student
with a 25% or higher appointment
a waiver, the university wanted
to raise the minimum to 33% (based
on a 40 hour work week, this would
be students working approximately
13 hours a week). Students in the
College of Fine and Applied Arts
(FAA) were especially at risk, given
the number of graduate employees on
25% appointments within these
departments. The GEO organized
around the issue, hosted a town hall
meeting for members to discuss the
proposal, and eventually the university
decided not to proceed.
Here we are again. Despite agreements
won through the union’s year-long organizing
efforts the GEO has discovered that waivers are again
under attack in a number of Fine and Applied Arts
departments. Landscape Architecture, Theatre, Dance,
and Urban and Regional Planning changed their tuition
policy for incoming graduate students. Instead of offering
a full tuition waiver, students were offered a base-rate
waiver and a scholarship, which combined covers almost
as many expenses as a full waiver. Base-rate tuition
waivers only cover in-state tuition,
approximately $13,000 less than
full-waivers. For graduate employees
in these departments, many of
whom make less than $1,000 a
month, this differential would be
an enormous financial burden.
Given the number of out-of-state
graduate students in attendance at
the university, this is of great concern.
Many of these students choose
to attend the university for two key
reasons: full waiver coverage and the
caliber of education offered. It is
common practice at American universities
to offer assistantships that
include a salary and full tuition
waiver in an attempt to recruit the
best and brightest to graduate programs.
This is a critical element of
Moreover, Illinois is a state where it is
uniquely difficult to obtain resident
status for purposes of tuition. One cannot obtain residency if
the person’s sole reason for living in the state is educational.
A person must reside in the state of Illinois but have no affiliation
with the university for a full year, which means taking
no classes and performing no labor for the university, before
residency can be obtained. However, this (a) is typically not
an option for international students and (b) taking a leave of
absence from studies has the potential to jeopardize a person’s
chances of re-employment.
While the graduate employees in FAA have been
offered a scholarship to make up the difference for academic
year 2010-2011, there are serious concerns about
whether or not there are plans to continue this practice
in the future. The shift from full to base-rate tuition
waivers is a violation of the contract language that GEO
members went on strike over less than a year ago. The administration’s refusal to abide by the
contract’s language clearly indicates a
willingness to erode graduate employees’
rights, making it difficult to assume that
they will continue to provide students
with scholarship funds in the future.
While waivers have only been changed in
FAA for this academic year, this is no
guarantee that these policies will not find
their way into other colleges and departments
in the future. As noted on the GEO
website, “any reduction of tuition waivers
greatly impacts access to higher education
for all incoming and future graduate
students in all departments at UIUC.”
In July, the GEO held a town hall meeting,
inviting members, faculty, and administrators
to participate in a conversation about
the waiver changes. Throughout the fall, the
union has continued to organize and educate
members around the issue and will do
so until full tuition waivers are reinstated in
FAA. In addition the GEO has filed a grievance
with the university that is currently in
Tuition waivers are an essential part of
maintaining access to public higher education.
For many of us at the U of I, our
waivers are why we are here. Without the
promise of full coverage we would not have
accepted admission to the U of I to pursue
our graduate education. Waivers are a benefit
of employment and in the last round of
contract negotiations the university committed
to continuing their longstanding practice
of granting waivers. They lied.

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