Debunking Student Fees: A Reflection on UW Admin’s Objections to Fee Waivers

As Academic Student Employees (ASEs) we chose to come to UW to study and work. We came because we value critical thinking and want to hone those skills. Accordingly, we have applied what we’ve learned to a statement by top Academic Leadership — President Ana Mari Cauce and Provost Jerry Baldasty — regarding a strike that thousands of us engaged in to protest the unacceptable stance University Administrators have taken in negotiations for our labor contract. Our close reading of this statement — which we write from a position of intellectual sincerity that respects and tries to improve UW — reveals some inconsistencies. We do not take the decision to strike lightly, but in light of the problem of extraordinary rent increases in Seattle, and the strong resistance by UW to agree to a compensation package that provides meaningful relief, we think it’s important to carefully scrutinize their stated reasons for their position.

Provost Baldasty and President Cauce’s 5/15 statement says the following about the biggest area of contention in our contract negotiations — fee waivers:

“We have waived operating fees, building fees and tech fees for ASEs, but as students, they currently pay fees that support the IMA, and a range of other related programs, including student publications, student government, child care, the ECC, the Q Center, the student parent resource center, and the campus sustainability fund. We believe ASEs should not be able to vote to enact or increase fees for services that they will use, while only other students will pay for them.”

The Facts:

Before analyzing Provost Baldasty and President Cauce’s statement, it is important to establish a set of undisputed facts.

  • ASEs are students and employees. Since we must maintain student enrollment in order to be employed, we are charged tuition and fees. In exchange for our work as Teaching and Research Assistants, we — as well as most ASEs around the country — receive a part-time wage as well as a waiver of tuition and select fees. It is most common for ASEs to receive 50% full-time equivalent appointments, which amount to 20 paid hours per week. While it is possible to work more than that, we are also enrolled as full-time students and regularly spend upwards of 40 hours a week on our own research and coursework.

Under the current union contract, UW waives select fees for services that we use:

  • Operating Fee: “Component of ‘tuition fees’ charged to students covers instruction-related expenses (e.g. faculty salaries).”
  • Building Fee: “Second component of ‘tuition fees’ charged to students for expenses related to capital infrastructure (e.g. minor works and preservation projects).”
  • Technology Fee: “Revenue generated from the Tech fee shall be used to fund technology resources for student use.” On the Seattle Campus, the Student Technology Fee helps fund the technology needs of University Libraries, the Student Technology Loan Program, the Odegaard Learning Commons, and gets used to support the Campus Sustainability Fund.

Under the current union contract, UW does not waive the following fees:

  • Services and Activities Fee (SAF): “S&A fees were established to provide funding for student activities and programs or the payment of bonds to cover all or part of the cost of acquiring, constructing, or installing any lands, buildings or facilities.”
  • IMA Bond Fee: “IMA Bond fee revenue is used to pay debt service associated with the IMA building and associated recreational facilities.”
  • Facilities Renovation Fee: “FR fee revenue is used to pay debt service associated with the renovation of the Husky Union Building, Ethnic Cultural Center, and Hall Health Primary Care Center. The fee ramped up to its full amount once students were able to access the facilities fully.”
  • U-Pass Fee: “U-PASS fee revenue is used to buy students universal access to metro and transit systems (as well as a number of other benefits).”
  • The union proposes to waive or remit all the unwaived fees. UW Administration refuses to do so. Their stated reasons for doing so are because they have a “philosophical” objection to waiving these fees, and/or that they believe that there is a statutory problem with providing waivers for certain fees.

The President and Provost’s Arguments Do Not Match Existing Practice

The President and Provost’s statement is premised on the notion that the unwaived fees are a condition not of our employment but of our status as students, despite the fact that some student fees, as described above, are already waived under our contract. Fees that make up “tuition” (Operating and Building) support things we all use and benefit from: building maintenance, faculty, instruction, and more recently to finance the new Life Sciences Building. The University to our knowledge has not once posed an objection to our accessing any of these spaces or services, despite the fact that we do not currently pay these fees. Moreover, there are not clear lines between “student services” that are funded by waived and unwaived fees, as the President and Provost’s statement would suggest. The IMA, which according to the administration is supported by the unwaived SAF and IMA fees, also receives funding from the Student Technology Fee (which is waived for ASEs). The campus sustainability fund (which the President and Provost cite as an example of something that is paid for by the SAF) also receives funding from the (waived) Technology Fee. There are numerous technology items that Academic Student Employees regularly access which are funded by the (waived) Technology Fee, and not once have they objected to this. The Provost and President’s objections just do not hold up when measured against existing practices.

It’s also worth pointing out another inconsistency: the UW Administration pays these fees for graduate students that are funded with a number of different Fellowships, including the National Science Foundation (NSF) Fellows. Again, to our knowledge the University has not once said about these individuals that they “should not be able to vote to enact or increase fees for services that they will use, while only other students will pay for them.”

An Unstated Reason for Protecting the Fees : Servicing UW Debt

Notably, the President and Provost do not mention in their statement that the currently unwaived fees are used towards “the payment of bonds to cover all or part of the cost of acquiring, constructing, or installing any lands, buildings or facilities;” “debt service associated with the renovation of the Husky Union Building, Ethnic Cultural Center, and Hall Health Primary Care Center;” and “debt service associated with the IMA building and associated recreational facilities.” While the University Administration would like to portray that these fees are used for student services, they are in fact also used in part as leverage against building debts. Consider the IMA Bond Fee. While the President and Provost’s statement vaguely remarks that “ASEs..as students…currently pay fees that support the IMA,” we are in fact required to pay this fee to fund a “bond” that services the debt UW has associated with the IMA building and “associated recreational facilities,” like the driving range. To be clear: no other employees are required to pay fees that fund University bonds as a condition of their employment. Thus, while the President and Provost are careful to present these as student fees which fund student services, that is not the whole picture. A portion of these fees are collected to fund the debt and continued operation associated with university facilities, such as Hall Health and the Husky Union Building.

While Academic Student Employees struggle to make ends meet, UW insists on not waiving or remitting these fees because they need the fee revenue not just to fund student services, as they suggest, but also to leverage their ability to borrow money while still maintaining their currently high credit rating.

Conclusion

Provost Baldasty and President Cauce are attempting to justify their objection to our fair compensation proposal on the basis of arguments that don’t hold up when compared to current practices. It seems likely that the President and Provost are not so much defending the critical need for students to maintain decision-making authority about fees (which, we also strongly support). Instead they are likely defending a business model, one in which the revenue and spending capacity from fees creates greater capacity for them to service debt. Whatever the reason for their objection, Academic Student Employees are being asked to disproportionately bear the brunt of the financial implications of this model. ASEs face wage cuts in the coming years with the current proposed contract: both because UW won’t maintain our linkage to our peer institutions in terms of wage increases and because UW won’t pay wages that keep up with cost of rent increases, or with inflation. On top of this, their continued insistence that we pay the remaining unwaived fees amounts to >3% of our gross wages lost to fees each year. This is in contrast to high paid administrators that aren’t being asked to bear the same burden for their business decisions.

We are no longer willing to accept this inequity. We are continuing to mobilize, and push for an alternate system: one which is equitable and consistent with our University’s stated values and mission.

Co-authors: Andrea Canini & Kristen Garofali, UAW 4121 bargaining committee members