student protest fees grad students
In California on Sep 5, 2017 students protested Trump rescinding DACA. Source: Sheila Fitzgerald/Shutterstock.

Students at the University of California (UC) and neighbouring institutions have taken to the streets to protest once more. Following September’s DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) protests (which even reeled Pope Francis and Bill Gates into the debate), many students are at the end of their tethers with the House Republicans Government.

The government has proposed a tax reform that would tax graduate students for their tuition benefit that is currently covered as part of their funding package for graduate school. The proposal would impact graduate students heavily as many are living on modest stipends. They would risk paying thousands more in taxes every year, making higher education even more unaffordable for thousands of them.

Many grad students are already living at or below the poverty line, with reports that many cannot afford groceries without food stamps.

In retaliation to the proposal, grad students in California banded together with academics from across the state – and even across the country this Wednesday, which saw many students and educators walk out of classes in protest.

The new tax is likely to change the entire operating system of grad schools. The majority of PhD students work for the university in exchange for a wage of roughly US$20,000 and a waivered tuition charge.

For many, the waived fees are the only reason they are able to pursue their PhD. At some private universities, tuition fees could stretch up to heights of over US$50,000 per year – an insurmountable sum of money for many.

Students currently only pay taxes on their income and not their tuition fees. Since their stipend income is often on or below the poverty line, these taxes are usually very minimal or simply non-existent.

If the proposal becomes law, grad students could lose over half of their stipend income on taxes.

It was this realisation drove UC Berkeley students Kathy Shield and Vetri Velan to create a calculator for grad students. The calculator allows concerned PhD students to estimate the amount of tax they will pay if the current House proposal is enacted.

Speaking with KQED NewsUniversity of Southern California (USC) student Marie Gillespie said: “I am a first-generation college student and an immigrant to the United States and I absolutely could not go to graduate school were it not for this tuition waiver.”

It is a common misconception that grad students aren’t actually working for the university, Gillespie claimed. The students teach classes, grade papers, and undertake huge amounts of research on behalf of their university. Many students are in their late 20s and 30s and even have children. With some programs lasting up to a decade, the tax law will make a PhD financially impossible for many of them.

Implementing the tuition tax would “essentially push graduate programs back to a 19th-century model of higher education in which only the rich could go on to higher education,” UC Berkeley Professor Wendy Brown said, speaking to KQED News.

The frustration is felt by almost everyone within the education sector. As USC Professor David Schwartz added“Doing this is just a mean-spirited attack on higher education”.

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