Student workers union report claims quality of UC education in decline

Arya Aliabadi/Staff

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The quality of education provided by the University of California has declined, according to a UC student workers union representing more than 13,000 graduate student instructors, teaching assistants and other educators.

In a report released Monday, the union, United Auto Workers Local 2865, cited growing class sizes and reduced graduate-program competitiveness as the cause of the decline.

The report, titled “Towards Mediocrity: Administrative Mismanagement and the Decline of UC Education,” focuses on how the university offered an average of $4,978 less in stipends to graduate student applicants in comparison to other schools those applicants were considering in 2010. The report uses a survey of 3,091 applicants conducted by the UC Office of the President that year.

The release of the report coincided with contract negotiations between UAW 2865 and the university, in which the union demanded increased stipends, smaller class sizes and access to more information about diversity, said union representative Amanda Armstrong, a UC Berkeley graduate student in the department of rhetoric.

In 2010, for the first time, more than half of applicants accepted into UC graduate programs chose to attend other schools. It is very likely that financial concerns “could be” responsible for their decision, according to the same UC Office of the President report, underscoring the importance of stipends to graduate-program competitiveness.

Stipends for graduate students include student wages, benefits such as health care or child care and tuition and fee assistance. The stipends also take into account living costs.

“What we can see really clearly is a decline in the quality of the UC,” said Josh Brahinsky, a doctoral student in the history of consciousness department at UC Santa Cruz and a member of the union’s negotiating team. “They’re increasing class sizes, decreasing support for grad students, increasing student-to-faculty ratios — so the quality of education is on its way down.”

Gustavo Oliveira, a UC Berkeley graduate student in the geography department who teaches three sections of Geography 10 with about 20 students each, said he spent the last week grading 60 midterms, which he wanted to get back to students before the Friday deadline to change their grading option.

Oliveira said that because of the rush to grade his students’ midterms, he turned in a research grant application on Tuesday an hour before the deadline. With only 40 midterms to grade, Oliveira said, he would have had at least a whole extra day to perfect the application.

What Oliveira called a lack of graduate research funding and increased section workload left him with a decision: He could devote more time to either his students or his attempts to secure funding for his research. According to Oliveira, that research would likely have been funded by the university only a few years ago.

Either way, he said undergraduates lose too, whether through less graduate student instructor attention or through fewer available research positions and less benefits from research.

“One cost-cutting measure has a ripple effect,” Oliveira said. “For graduate students, for staff, for undergraduates and for society.”

Richard Walker, a board member of the Berkeley Faculty Association, and Anne MacLachlan, a researcher at the UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education, agreed that these tough choices have negative effects on undergraduates.

“The less money there is around, the more we are all scrambling,” Walker said. “All the squeezing means faculty scrambling more, graduate students scrambling more — and the undergraduates are often forgotten.”

In an Oct. 30 speech to the Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco, UC President Janet Napolitano pledged an additional $5 million for the recruitment of graduate students. The union’s report claims roughly $20 million to $30 million is required to make UC stipends for graduate students competitive with offerings from other schools.

Although MacLachlan agreed that strong graduate programs directly benefit undergraduates, she was critical of the report’s weak methodology.

“It is not a report but a collection of viewpoints on real problems based on anecdotes and generalities,” MacLachlan said. “It is such a shame, because I would bet that most UC employees in any category agree that graduate student support should be much better and also agree that real problems are raised in this document.”

UC officials said they have not yet reviewed the report and could not comment on its details. UC spokesperson Shelly Meron said the university acknowledged the need to do more for graduate students, which motivated Napolitano’s $5 million pledge.

Contact Daniel Tutt at [email protected].