This Washington

Cutting Higher Ed Funding Hurts Indispensable Student Employees

By David Parsons February 11, 2011

This guest editorial is by David Parsons, head of UAW Local 4121, which represents more than 4,000 Academic Student Employees.

Lots of smart people (Rep. Mark Liias, Prof. Bill Lynne, and Quinn Majeski) are talking about how to deal with the current challenges facing our state’s higher education system---and raising the profile of the damage being done to the state by legislative budget cuts.

But these smart, myth-busting analyses at times perpetuate a misconception of higher education, in which two competing interests (“the students” and “the institutions”) are at odds in a struggle for precious resources. In these zero-sum times, legislative proposals have seemed to focus on one or the other, or attempt to accommodate both (high tuition/high aid) with limited success.

The best example of where this false choice dissolves is in the case of Academic Student Employees: The thousands of graduate and advanced undergraduate students employed by our state’s institutions to carry out the core missions that make those institutions world leaders in teaching and research.

At the University of Washington, teaching assistants, graders and tutors complement the work of high-quality faculty by providing more than 50 percent of the face-to-face instruction for tens of thousands of undergraduate students taking courses at the university each year.

Their work makes quality higher education more accessible to the rapidly growing number of students seeking a college degree, including underrepresented students (low-income, first-generation immigrants, and communities of color) who might not otherwise get this opportunity. As research assistants, Academic Student Employees perform the bulk of the cutting-edge lab research that generates more than $1 billion a year in grants and contracts to UW and the state. This research also significantly contributes to new businesses and innovative job creation and further economic development throughout our region.

Yet these indispensable employees have been caught squarely in the middle of two damaging trends: decreasing state appropriations to institutions, and dramatic tuition and fee increases on students. Average wages for these student employees at UW have stagnated, but by 2013 they will be losing upwards of 7% of their annual income due to mandatory fee increases.

If you’re inclined to write this off as just another inevitable hardship story in tough economic times, it’s important to keep in mind both the short-term and long-term impacts of these trends. When it’s harder for our state universities to attract and retain the best and brightest to perform this critical work, it’s harder for them to deliver quality and access to the students they serve. Institutions employ less qualified researchers and instructors, and they can’t keep up with other major universities who are figuring out ways to recruit and retain even in difficult times. Twenty years from now, we all might look back at 2011 as the year that Washington State’s higher education system changed from being a place students wanted to be to a place to end up.

Solving the current challenges facing higher education will require the legislature to recognize the complete picture, including our higher education workforce. We can all agree that shifting costs to students hurts students and needs to stop but we should also recognize that the “institutions” —and the workforces that drive them—can be hurt as well.
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