GSU members ask graduates to withhold student services fees in protest
Although it constantly asserts that graduates are not workers, the University of Chicago pays doctoral students to take courses, teach, conduct research, host events, and more each term. And every term, like clockwork, graduate students must pay a portion of our paychecks to the University in the form of Student Services Fees (SSF). We’re told these fees fund “essential student services” and on-campus activities, but the University is emphatically evasive about what it actually pays, citing a nebulous assortment of benefits such as “health and student welfare, recreational facilities and activities and students. programming.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to distance and blended learning have exacerbated financial hardship for students and university workers, and exposed the vague and problematic nature of SSF. In the spring of 2020, under pressure from student organizers, including the UChicago Labor Council, the administration reduced the SSF to $125 for the term, acknowledging that students were unable to access the on-campus services. Since the fall, however, fees have been reinstated to the full amount, $416 per quarter, even though many SSF-supported services and facilities are still operating at a greatly reduced capacity and some are not available at all.
The SSF has always been an expensive and dubiously justified tax for UChicago students in general and graduates in particular. Fees are significantly higher than those paid at comparable universities: Northwestern University typically charges a student activity fee that’s a quarter of UChicago’s SSF, but waived fees for all graduate students during the pandemic. In contrast, our fees have increased by 20% since 2014. This means that in an academic year, graduates now have to pay over $1,200 for an ill-defined set of services. The expense is even higher for people enrolled in summer courses, who have to pay the SSF during the summer term as well as in the fall, winter and spring.
The administration’s reluctance to reveal what this fee actually pays is very worrying. Even under ordinary circumstances, graduate workers feel it is well within our rights to know what they are being asked to subsidize with their allowances; in times of pandemic, this is all the more urgent. If SSF-funded services are truly essential to “student life,” they should be included in graduate-worker funding programs and, for undergraduates, should be covered by their already sky-high tuition. If the University wishes to announce financial support for graduate programs, it must deliver on that promise and fully fund basic living costs for graduate students, including health care and (under non-pandemic conditions) l access to university facilities necessary to complete their work. .
As everyone continues to experience pandemic conditions and many graduate workers, undergraduate students and their families continue to face loss of income, the hundreds of dollars spent on the SSF are making a huge difference. Today more than ever, graduate workers need to be relieved. Students working from home absorbed University electricity and networking costs, facing higher utility bills and often purchasing new equipment to establish efficient home offices. For UChicago to continue to charge full fees is not only absurd, but exploitative. It’s a cynical move from a university with a multibillion-dollar endowment, signaling that the administration sees students as little more than sources of revenue.
In light of the ongoing and unprecedented charges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, UChicago GSU is requesting the immediate suspension of Student Services Fees for the 2020-2021 academic year and refunds for those who have already paid the student service fees. and winter. We graduate workers demand full transparency regarding the use of funds raised from student services fees in the future. We ask the administration to ensure that all incoming students are advised of these fees in their offers of admission. Hundreds of graduate workers have signed a pledge to collectively withhold payment of student services fees until these demands are met. The graduate workers of the University of Chicago are united in this pledge of refusal and demand that the administration of the University immediately adopt our demands.
The authors are members of Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago.