A key issue for many graduate employees is guaranteed tuition waivers. A tuition waiver means that a graduate employee’s tuition is waived. It is not paid by the department, the state, or an outside entity. All appointments protected under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Graduate and Teaching Assistants with at least a 25% appointment, are guaranteed tuition waivers. These tuition waivers are a form of compensation that are earned through graduate employee labor. Tuition waivers may be base waivers or full waivers. Base waivers cover only the base tuition, whereas full waivers cover all tuition, although in both cases there are still fees that graduate students will pay, such as the health service fee.
If you’re not a graduate student and you want to learn more about why tuition waivers are important for graduate students and the educational quality of the University, visit this page.
The Historical Struggle for Tuition Waiver Protection
Throughout our union’s history, GEO members have consistently fought to protect tuition waivers in the face of repeated attempts by UIUC to diminish them.
Before 2009, the GEO did not have guaranteed tuition waivers in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. During bargaining in 2009, the GEO proposed language to protect tuition waivers. The University balked, but grad students stood strong in the face of opposition. Over 1,000 GEO members went on strike on November 16-17, 2009 to win tuition waiver protection in our collective bargaining agreement.
The Fine and Applied Arts Arbitration
Shortly after the strike, in January 2010, the University took away tuition waivers from incoming graduate employees in the College of Fine and Applied Arts. They attempted to increase revenue from graduate employees by raising the minimum percentage to qualify for a tuition waiver to 33%. This means that graduate employees were paying to work. The GEO grieved this as a violation of the tuition waiver side letter in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The grievance went all the way to an arbitration; an arbitration is similar to a court case. The University and the GEO both present their arguments and the arbitrator determines who wins and what any remedy should be. An arbitration decision is a legally binding decision that protects all members of the bargaining unit, not just those involved in the grievance.
In 2011, the GEO won an arbitration regarding changes in tuition waiver policy in Fine and Applied Arts; the arbitrator agreed that the University could not change tuition waivers for graduate employees already at the University. The University owed the FAA students the tuition they had paid. Although the arbitration is legally binding, the University refused to comply with the arbitrator’s decision until the GEO threatened to strike in 2012. In early 2013, University finally paid FAA graduate students nearly half a millions dollars for tuition they were forced to pay.
Masters in Computer Science and Reimbursement
In 2013, Masters in Computer Science (MCS) students and MA students in Statistics were informed that they could not hold waiver-generating appointments because the departments had been designated as “self supporting.” The two departments agreed to reverse their stance on assistantships after meeting with GEO.
Despite reaching an agreement with the GEO in 2013, the MCS program again altered policy in an attempt to get revenue from graduate student tuition. In 2014, incoming MCS students were informed that the Computer Science department would not allow them to hold assistantships in CS. In addition, when students in these programs went to other programs to seek appointments, they were denied appointments. Although they were qualified to hold appointments, departments outside Computer Science, such as Electrical and Computer Engineering, could not afford to hire them. Instead of providing a tuition waiver for a waiver-generating appointment covered by the CBA, Computer Science asked ECE and other departments to pay the MCS students’ tuition in cash. As a result of this policy change, most MCS students were hired as hourly employees. Hourly employees do the same work as Graduate Assistants and Teaching Assistants, but are not awarded tuition waivers. If departments designated as “reimbursable” were allowed to operate in this way, 95% of graduate employees on campus could be impacted.
GEO again filed a grievance. Because the issue was not resolved by the grievance process, the University and the GEO went to arbitration over the MCS policy in August 2015. While still awaiting the results of the arbitration, GEO filed another grievance in Materials Science and Energy Systems because those departments were also asking for cash reimbursement from department that employed their graduate students. During the course of this grievance the University Administration told GEO representatives that the Graduate College Handbook (which sets the tuition and fee waiver policy) is “merely supplemental” and “not meant to impede the business practices of the University.”
In January 2016, the GEO and the University were notified that the GEO had won the arbitration. The arbitrator decreed that the reimbursement policy prevented qualified graduate students from getting waiver-generating appointments. The arbitrator stated, “The MCS action upsets the full panoply of assumptions that underlie the University framework of support for graduate students. It reduces the value of the tuition waiver, when it imposes the costs of the tuition waiver on the employing unit, the unit granting the assistantship. The tuition waiver is transformed from the primary form of compensation to a competitive disqualifying cost.” (MCS Arbitration Decision). As of April 2016, the GEO is still attempting to negotiate a remedy to this decision. We hope that when the remedy is secured, it will further protect graduate students from threats to tuition waivers.
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