Esther Raizen

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

The College of Liberal Arts TA task force released recommendations Thursday addressing issues concerning graduate TAs and assistant instructors (AIs). The recommendations include defining TA responsibilities more clearly, alleviating the amount of grading and increasing job security. 

The task force distributed a survey to 1,300 current or former TAs and AIs assessing their satisfaction with current job policies. The task force received 681 survey responses.   

Based on the responses, the task force put together a report of recommendations, which will be passed off to chair members and committees for consideration, according to Esther Raizen, COLA associate dean for research and graduate studies. 

“The College is committed, from the dean down, to making sure their recommendations are seriously considered and implemented to the degree that it’s possible,” Raizen said. 

The recommendations included both a contract between the TA and the professor and a TA handbook. Justin Doran, task force member and spokesman, said both measures are intended to decrease confusion about job responsibilities and to protect TAs from excessive amounts of work. According to the report, 26 percent of survey respondents work more than 20 hours a week.

“One of the things that we found is that [a majority of the] time of graduate teaching assistants is spent on grading,” Doran said. “Grading is a chore. It’s extremely time consuming because it increases linearly with the number of students you have.”

Doran said he hopes initiatives, such as the contract, will help avoid unnecessary amounts of grading. The task force will reconvene at the end of the semester to review their recommendations.

The Graduate Student Assembly will look at the issue of TA rights in its upcoming Graduate Student Bill of Rights legislation, according to Elizabeth Cozzolino, GSA student affairs director. She said both the task force and GSA might face problems enforcing the recommendations.

“Even if the recommendations are expected by the college, there is no enforcement mechanism,” Cozzolino said.

The goal is to get TAs to work only 20 hours a week, Doran said, but that may mean increasing the number of TAs and decreasing their pay.

“We would love it if there were more graduate TAs, but as I understand it, there is a set budget for teaching assistants and assistant instructors, and that money hasn’t increased for many years,” Doran said.  

The survey found 64 percent of students surveyed were dissatisfied with their current TA compensation based on their typical workload.

As a result of increased living expenses, TA stipends are approximately $3,500 less than the cost of attending the University, according to Raizen. She said the number of TAs decreased by 12 percent between 2008 and 2013.

“Over time, Austin also has become so expensive that the cost of living here has skyrocketed, and we have not kept up,” Raizen said.

The task force proposed the option for TAs to receive stipends over a 12-month period, as opposed to the current 9 months.  

“We don’t have money, and there’s no question that we want to increase TA stipends, because [TAs] don’t meet the cost of attendance,” Raizen said. “If we reduce the number of TAs at some point, we’ll get to the point where we will not be able to do what we [need] in terms of instruction. There needs to be some new thinking about resources that we can apply.”

UT graduate programs attempt to offset decreases in funding for fellowships, TAs, AIs

While members of the Texas Legislature continue to butt heads over undergraduate graduation priorities and the role of research, graduate students are seeing shifts in their enrollment, employment and fellowship opportunities at the University.

Starting this year, the University has decentralized its graduate fellowship award decisions and will make tuition benefits for teaching assistants (TA) and assistant instructors (AI) tax-free this fall in hopes of offsetting the coming decline in tuition benefits next semester. 

Although undergraduate enrollment at UT has grown incrementally over the past decade, graduate enrollment fell 4.3 percent from its fall 2009 peak. Currently, there are 11,123 graduate students at UT, not including students at the School of Law. 

The changes in cohort sizes and fellowship awards have been part of a University push to ensure that graduate students continue to receive financial support that remains competitive with peer institutions, while also granting flexibility to individual departments to allocate resources as they see fit.

Shrinking funds, growing needs

The benefit received by TAs and AIs, the largest source of financial support for the graduate student body according to the Office of Graduate Studies, will decline back to $3,784 per student next fall, after temporarily being boosted to $4,000 during this academic year to keep pace with the 3.6 percent increase in graduate tuition. This will be the first time a decline has occurred since the inception of benefits in fall 1997.

Also for the first time, the students receiving the benefit next semester will not have to pay taxes on it. After consulting with the Internal Revenue Service, the University has discovered that the amount of funding provided to graduate students through tuition benefits is enough to qualify for tax-exempt status, said John Dalton, assistant dean of the Office of Graduate Studies. The benefit, along with in-state residency status, is part of the financial compensation awarded to TAs and AIs.

“When tuition assistance was set up, the compensation for those positions was fairly low, and the benefit was part of that compensation,” Dalton said. “Over the years we have increased the stipend we pay, and it has increased to be of acceptable compensation for a [tax-exempt] benefit.”

Necessary for teaching undergraduate seminars, the number of graduate TAs and AIs employed by the University has changed only slightly from 3,089 in spring 2009 to 3,068 in fall 2012, meaning nearly 27.6 percent of graduate students in fall 2012 worked as TAs or AIs.

Esther Raizen, associate dean for research at the College of Liberal Arts, said state funding reductions mean the amount of tuition benefit paid to TAs and AIs will not keep pace with the rising cost of graduate student tuition over time. As part of the TA or AI benefit, graduate students receive resident status and earned $4,000 a semester toward tuition this year if they worked for 20 or more hours a week. The average cost of full-time tuition this year was $5,370 a semester for residents and $10,264 for non-residents.

“The tuition benefit is a way of funding partial support,” Raizen said. “It’s not dramatic, but it’s still a difference. And we can’t reduce the number of TAs or AIs. In the absence of additional funding, reduced student cohorts are the only means by which we can increase our student support and remain competitive.”

Decentralization

Individual colleges and schools managed a little more than half of the $14 million in graduate fellowships at the University for the first time this year, a role previously overseen by the Office of Graduate Studies. Fellowship funding derives from a variety of funds and endowments and was decentralized according to the requirements of each fellowship.

According to the Office of Graduate Studies, the amount of University-funded fellowship awards for graduate students has continued to rise in recent years and reached an all-time high this school year. But these funds only account for slightly less than 5 percent of all funds used to support graduate students, said Marvin Hackert, associate dean of the Office of Graduate Studies.

A joint committee of Faculty Council and the Graduate Assembly last year also found that fellowship grants after decentralization were much more irregular in amounts granted because of communication breakdowns in individual departments.

Alan Friedman, English professor and co-chairman of the committee, said colleges were unsure how to offer fellowship funding because individual deans had less experience and could not manage over-offers or under-offers across the University the way the Office of Graduate Studies could.

“When fellowships were centralized, they could offer more money than they had, because experience taught them that the students were not always going to be accepted,” Friedman said. “Nobody took a chance of offering more than it had. And it’s tougher to do if you’re giving out at a smaller unit. When centralized, you could make up the offers in the other departments if you fell short in one area.” 

Since gaining the power to allocate its fellowships, the College of Liberal Arts has overhauled its awards to be competitive in funding with peer institutions. Beginning in fall 2013, the college will award fewer, but more valuable fellowships that provide a minimum of $20,000 per academic year, including tuition and student health insurance. 

Raizen said this was done to keep pace with the rising cost of living in Austin and paying graduate tuition at UT, which is estimated by International Student & Scholar Services to be $25,370 a year for residents, and $34,310 for non-residents. An average of $5,370 of that cost goes to tuition.

State-level woes

As University resources are focused on meeting four-year graduation rates and undergraduate priorities, graduate student budgets have been targeted for reduction, said Michael Redding, president of the Graduate Student Assembly and a Texas Student Media contract employee.

“The colleges are looking and saying, ‘We don’t want to give just a little bit of money to a lot of people,’” Redding said. “As much as it pains me to see graduate support getting cut, most graduate students would admit that they need to keep the funding that they have.”

In fall 2012, only 9.5 percent of undergraduates were non-residents, but 56.9 percent of graduate students at UT were out-of-state or international students.

“In this Legislature, the primary focus is on undergraduates,” Redding said. “That’s who their constituents are. But graduates are out-of-state and international and not voting, so the graduate experience is left out of the mix.”

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, a member of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said in a statement to The Daily Texan that graduate student issues deserve more attention from the Legislature.

“The Legislature must stop starving universities to the point that some administrators are tempted to undermine graduate programs, or other critical higher education necessities, to preserve other resources and offerings on a campus,” Watson said. “Higher education should be treated as a vital investment, not a zero-sum game.”

As of press time, there had been more than 2,500 bills filed in the current legislative session — and only one bill with “graduate” in the title has been filed for graduate students at public universities in Texas. 

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

While members of the Texas Legislature continue to butt heads over undergraduate graduation priorities and the role of research, graduate students are seeing shifts in their enrollment, employment and fellowship opportunities at the University.

Starting this year, the University has decentralized its graduate fellowship award decisions and will make tuition benefits for teaching assistants (TA) and assistant instructors (AI) tax-free this fall in hopes of offsetting the coming decline in tuition benefits next semester. 

Although undergraduate enrollment at UT has grown incrementally over the past decade, graduate enrollment fell 4.3 percent from its fall 2009 peak. Currently, there are 11,123 graduate students at UT, not including students at the School of Law. 

The changes in cohort sizes and fellowship awards have been part of a University push to ensure that graduate students continue to receive financial support that remains competitive with peer institutions, while also granting flexibility to individual departments to allocate resources as they see fit.

Shrinking funds, growing needs

The benefit received by TAs and AIs, the largest source of financial support for the graduate student body according to the Office of Graduate Studies, will decline back to $3,784 per student next fall, after temporarily being boosted to $4,000 during this academic year to keep pace with the 3.6 percent increase in graduate tuition. This will be the first time a decline has occurred since the inception of benefits in fall 1997.

Also for the first time, the students receiving the benefit next semester will not have to pay taxes on it. After consulting with the Internal Revenue Service, the University has discovered that the amount of funding provided to graduate students through tuition benefits is enough to qualify for tax-exempt status, said John Dalton, assistant dean of the Office of Graduate Studies. The benefit, along with in-state residency status, is part of the financial compensation awarded to TAs and AIs.

“When tuition assistance was set up, the compensation for those positions was fairly low, and the benefit was part of that compensation,” Dalton said. “Over the years we have increased the stipend we pay, and it has increased to be of acceptable compensation for a [tax-exempt] benefit.”

Necessary for teaching undergraduate seminars, the number of graduate TAs and AIs employed by the University has changed only slightly from 3,089 in spring 2009 to 3,068 in fall 2012, meaning nearly 27.6 percent of graduate students in fall 2012 worked as TAs or AIs.

Esther Raizen, associate dean for research at the College of Liberal Arts, said state funding reductions mean the amount of tuition benefit paid to TAs and AIs will not keep pace with the rising cost of graduate student tuition over time. As part of the TA or AI benefit, graduate students receive resident status and earned $4,000 a semester toward tuition this year if they worked for 20 or more hours a week. The average cost of full-time tuition this year was $5,370 a semester for residents and $10,264 for non-residents.

“The tuition benefit is a way of funding partial support,” Raizen said. “It’s not dramatic, but it’s still a difference. And we can’t reduce the number of TAs or AIs. In the absence of additional funding, reduced student cohorts are the only means by which we can increase our student support and remain competitive.”

Decentralization

Individual colleges and schools managed a little more than half of the $14 million in graduate fellowships at the University for the first time this year, a role previously overseen by the Office of Graduate Studies. Fellowship funding derives from a variety of funds and endowments and was decentralized according to the requirements of each fellowship.

According to the Office of Graduate Studies, the amount of University-funded fellowship awards for graduate students has continued to rise in recent years and reached an all-time high this school year. But these funds only account for slightly less than 5 percent of all funds used to support graduate students, said Marvin Hackert, associate dean of the Office of Graduate Studies.

A joint committee of Faculty Council and the Graduate Student Assembly last year also found that fellowship grants after decentralization were much more irregular in amounts granted because of communication breakdowns in individual departments.

Alan Friedman, English professor and co-chairman of the committee, said colleges were unsure how to offer fellowship funding because individual deans had less experience and could not manage over-offers or under-offers across the University the way the Office of Graduate Studies could.

“When fellowships were centralized, they could offer more money than they had, because experience taught them that the students were not always going to be accepted,” Friedman said. “Nobody took a chance of offering more than it had. And it’s tougher to do if you’re giving out at a smaller unit. When centralized, you could make up the offers in the other departments if you fell short in one area.” 

Since gaining the power to allocate its fellowships, the College of Liberal Arts has overhauled its awards to be competitive in funding with peer institutions. Beginning in fall 2013, the college will award fewer, but more valuable fellowships that provide a minimum of $20,000 per academic year, including tuition and student health insurance. 

Raizen said this was done to keep pace with the rising cost of living in Austin and paying graduate tuition at UT, which is estimated by International Student & Scholar Services to be $25,370 a year for residents, and $34,310 for non-residents. An average of $5,370 of that cost goes to tuition.

State-level woes

As University resources are focused on meeting four-year graduation rates and undergraduate priorities, graduate student budgets have been targeted for reduction, said Michael Redding, president of the Graduate Student Assembly and a Texas Student Media contract employee.

“The colleges are looking and saying, ‘We don’t want to give just a little bit of money to a lot of people,’” Redding said. “As much as it pains me to see graduate support getting cut, most graduate students would admit that they need to keep the funding that they have.”

In fall 2012, only 9.5 percent of undergraduates were non-residents, but 56.9 percent of graduate students at UT were out-of-state or international students.

“In this Legislature, the primary focus is on undergraduates,” Redding said. “That’s who their constituents are. But graduates are out-of-state and international and not voting, so the graduate experience is left out of the mix.”

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, a member of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said in a statement to The Daily Texan that graduate student issues deserve more attention from the Legislature.

“The Legislature must stop starving universities to the point that some administrators are tempted to undermine graduate programs, or other critical higher education necessities, to preserve other resources and offerings on a campus,” Watson said. “Higher education should be treated as a vital investment, not a zero-sum game.”

As of press time, there had been more than 2,500 bills filed in the current legislative session — and only one bill with “graduate” in the title has been filed for graduate students at public universities in Texas. 

Printed on Thursday, February 14, 2013 as: Nature of grad student employment shifting