United we educate

Graduate student unions will have a positive impact on the quality of universities’ educations

The University of Connecticut recognized a union composed of about 2,100 graduate assistants Friday. The graduates will be able to negotiate wages, hours and working conditions, but will have no power over academic decisions, like curriculum content and tuition.

Many public universities have unions for graduate students, which need not be recognized by the state as long as the graduate students are not considered state employees — though many state legislators do support them. Some professors oppose graduate student unions because they think the graduates should be focused primarily on their studies rather than their compensation. Some administrators also fear unionization may worsen relations between graduate students and professors.

Graduate students, though, are a vital component of undergraduates’ education, and since their compensation, hours and working conditions greatly impact the undergraduate students whom they teach, unionization will improve the quality of that education. A graduate teaching assistant working too many hours for insufficient pay may not have the time or the motivation to put their full effort into planning lessons for their undergraduate students and grading their papers or exams. Unionization will give graduate teaching assistants the power to alter the conditions which do not foster the best educational experience.

There is also evidence which suggests unionization has a positive effect on relations between professors and graduate students. A study done by two Rutgers professors and a New Mexico State assistant professor compared unionized and non-unionized universities, and found either no difference in professor-graduate relationships, or better relationships at the unionized institutions. Graduate students who were in unions reported their advisors “accepted them as professionals” more often than those not in unions. This kind of relationship would likely increase graduate students’ efficacy in their research and in their classrooms.

The study also found graduate students at the unionized universities were more likely to report they were compensated fairly.

Some make the comparison between graduate student unions and athlete unions, arguing that if you allow one you have to allow the other. But we have previously argued against student athlete unionization because it would risk diverting attention from a university’s primary role — education. Though the graduate student union at Connecticut will have no impact on academic decisions, their ability to unionize will directly impact the academic experience of undergraduate students. A athlete union, however, would treat students as players first and students second, compromising the educational mission of a university.

While the creation of the union does recognize the graduate students primarily as employees, their role in the university has already been established as primarily academic, and such recognition would increase their motivation to advance their professional careers in their field of study.

Another concern with the prospect of athlete student unionization, as we have written before, is that it would give privilege to male athletes over female athletes, since men’s sports are higher revenue drivers. Male athletes have more power to leverage unionization, and if unionization leads to athlete compensation, female athletes would likely get little or no money for performing the same amount of work male athletes perform.

Graduate student unions do not carry the risk of unequal treatment between the sexes, and will likely positively impact a university’s ability to educate rather than detract from it. The University of Connecticut governing board’s decision to recognize their graduate assistants’ union will likely improve the institution overall, and will hopefully set an example for more universities to make similar decisions in the future.

Published April 21, 2014 in Opinion

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