UF grad students protest rising student fees

Jose Soto, chief steward of the Graduate Assistants United, a union for University of Florida graduate assistants, participates Wednesday in a campus rally against fees they are charged.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 2:11 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 2:11 p.m.

University of Florida graduate assistants rallied Wednesday to oppose student fees that they say eat up more than 10 percent of their stipends.

UF officials, in the meantime, are considering boosting the size of those stipends — ironically, with a possible fee.

The union representing graduate teaching and research assistants organized the rally at UF's Plaza of the Americas to protest fees that have increased at a greater rate than stipends. Fees have increased 81 percent since 2006, according to the group, and a graduate assistant working 12 months this year paid nearly $1,700 in fees.

"I don't feel the workers of this university, who generate revenue for the university, should pay to work here," said Matt Vernon, co-president of the Graduate Assistants United union and a research assistant in biomedical engineering.

More than 60 graduate assistants and their supporters rallied at the plaza before marching to Tigert Hall, UF's administration building. UF officials pointed out that graduate assistants use services funded through fees and UF President Bernie Machen has made a priority of improving their compensation, including providing them with free health-care benefits.

"It started with graduate health care and … he's committed to getting them stipends that are competitive with peer universities," said Janine Sikes, UF spokeswoman.

A committee on doctoral education, commissioned by Machen, found that UF stipend levels are below national and even regional means. In his state-of-the-university speech earlier this fall, Machen announced plans to improve graduate education that included spending $7 million in part to increase stipends.

He's raised the possibility of a new student fee to support graduate education, but not released any details on the idea. Such a fee would need approval by the UF Board of Trustees and the Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system.

Vernon said fees are rising so quickly that simply increasing stipends won't solve the problem. As an example, he said fees jumped 16 percent in 2010 but stipends rose just 3 percent.

"You have essentially less take-home pay each year," he said.

Graduate assistants receive stipends and tuition waivers but pay the same fees as other graduate and undergraduate students, such as an activity and service fee, building fee and transportation fee. Participants at Wednesday's rally said the teaching and teaching load of graduate assistants means that they have less time to participate in activities or use services funded through fees.

"We pay for student financial aid -- which most of us, or many of us, would not need in the first place if we actually were paid a living wage," said Emily McCann, secretary of Graduate Assistants United.

It's impossible to quantify the level that graduate assistants used some of the activities funded through fees, such as speakers open to the public. In terms of funding for students groups, nearly 36 percent of the $1.15 million dedicated last year to those groups went to graduate student and their groups -- who comprise about 34 percent of the student body.

UF Dean of Students Jen Day Shaw noted that in the case of Student Legal Services, 46 percent of its clients are graduate students.

"There are services that graduate students use more than undergraduates," she said.

Contact Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or nathan.crabbe@gvillesun.com. For more stories on the University of Florida, visit www.thecampussun.com.

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