This legislation would eliminate the tax exemption for tuition waivers which roughly 30% of graduate students, including over 50% of those in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) fields receive. At the University of Minnesota, this would double grad student taxable income, effectively tripling their tax burden.
Most grad students already eke out a subsistence living, and many will be forced to leave higher education if the current tax plan goes into effect. The proposed tax isn’t the first attack on higher education by this administration. The budget passed earlier this year included a 22% cut to the National Institute of Health and a 17% cut to the Department of Energy, both of which fund much of the research done by grad students. These attacks should not be viewed as isolated attacks on education but as a part of the general austerity that has been thrust upon the working class, particularly since the 2008 crash.
Graduate students do much of the essential work required to run universities, both as teaching assistants (TAs) and research assistants (RAs). TAs grade assignments and exams, give the most individual attention to students through one-on-one discussions and office hours and transmit feedback between students and professors. RAs do most of the basic research in universities. Teaching professors determine course structure, and research professors apply for grants and oversee the research of graduate students and postdocs. But without graduate students, the universities can’t function.
Despite the essential role graduate students play, administrators deny that they are workers at all. Grad students are paid a “stipend” rather than a wage, meaning they are not legally paid for the work they do, but rather, receive money to pay their bills due to the supposed benevolence of the administration. At the University of Minnesota, graduate students trying to organize a union have been told to be happy with the stipend they receive, because they don’t do any “real” work. Stipends are typically given for 20 hours of work, although grad students typically work a minimum of 40 hours. In the summer, TAs have difficulty getting work at the university and often must take a second job. Some graduate students are compelled to work a second job year-round to make ends meet. To make matters even worse, some graduate schools forbid students from taking a job outside the university, and international students aren’t allowed to work other jobs under their student visa.
The disastrous effect the current tax proposal would have on American universities means it is unlikely to be implemented as is. Upending the current graduate school system would flood the labor market as students join the private workforce, and would cripple university research and teaching. Given how precariously perched the national and international economy is, this could even trigger the next slump, especially when combined with the house of cards of student debt, which currently stands at over $1.2 trillion.
Even if this part of the proposed legislation isn’t passed or implemented in the end, it doesn’t mean that graduate students won’t face further cuts. If the bill passes, universities themselves will be forced to address the de facto wage cut in some form. As one possible solution, they may decide to cut or even eliminate graduate student tuition. However, most administrations would have no interest in taking on the entire burden of the tax cut. Instead, they would likely either push a portion of the tuition tax onto graduate students or directly cut stipends, forcing out the poorest students.
Universities have vocally decried the tax plan, but have done little to oppose it. They limit themselves to public statements and exhortations to send letters to Congress. However, the only way to seriously fight such attacks is by organizing graduate students. In many universities, graduate unions, organizing committees, and other grad student groups have organized discussions on the tax plan, as well as nationwide walkouts against it. This is an important step, but it will not be enough. Nor is it enough to petition the government or universities. Graduate students need to unionize so their collective power can be felt. Furthermore, these unions need to be militant and link up with other organized and unorganized workers on the campuses and beyond.
Grad Unions and unionization campaigns must take up bold demands and fight not only against the austerity forced on grad students but against austerity generally, connecting this to the struggle of the working class as a whole against capitalism. But it is not enough to simply fight against cuts; positive demands must be put forward as well:
Armed with militant demands like these, and by building solidarity with all students and workers, a militant labor movement can wrest serious demands from the universities and the public and private institutions that govern them. An open-ended national general strike of graduate students, with solidarity from the rest of the labor movement, would do more than just force the universities to the table on wages, it would be an example of how the working class can wage a serious fight against the austerity being forced on us all.