Adam Ratzlaff/Graduate Student
On the afternoon of September 8, 2021, the University Graduate School (UGS) emailed a memo to its PhD students indicating that it would be raising stipends for graduate assistants making under $26,000 by 3.5% this year. Additionally, new policies and clarifications to existing policies were discussed. Mind you this comes just weeks after the pressure started—a petition to support FIU graduate students has garnered over 600 signatures including over 40 faculty members and an op-ed was published in PantherNow detailing how little graduate assistants make at FIU. While this may all be a coincidence, it appears that the FIU administration is trying to get ahead of the issue rather than addressing the real issues affecting graduate students. Although any raise is welcome news, graduate students cannot be complacent and drop this campaign just because we received this “gift.”
In addition to the timing being fishy, let’s take a look at what a 3.5% stipend increase actually means. Based on the numbers that FIU provided, this raise would amount to a $705 to $910 increase in annual stipends, which amounts to about approximately $60 to $76 dollars per month. For many graduate students, this won’t even cover university fees for ONE semester, which can be as much as $890.03/semester for students during course work during the fall and spring semesters. Given that current stipends are as low as 60% of Miami’s living wage, this modest increase does little to combat the gap between graduate student stipends and the high cost of living in Miami. Furthermore, it is important to note that this raise did not impact all graduate assistants even though the memo noted that ALL assistantships from the school were capped below the living wage for Miami.
To make matters worse, it does not even match inflation in South Florida. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the consumer price index for the Miami area increased by 5.1% this past year. Therefore, even with the raise, the FIU graduate student stipend does not go as far as even one year ago. Furthermore, UGS wants to make sure that all students are aware that this may not represent a permanent raise. In fact, in both the email and in the documents that detail the policy changes, the administration explicitly highlighted that they “expect to be able to maintain it in future years,” providing ample opportunity to drop this raise at their convenience.
The document was also clearly put together hastily with many parts remaining vague and with some factual errors. Even the data that UGS provided on stipend levels within each college was inaccurate. According to administration, the minimum stipends (before the 3.5% raise) at each school are as follows; $20,153.20 (SIPA), $24,163.80 (Nursing), $24,164 (Engineering & Computing), $24,164 (CASE), $25,000 (Medicine) and $24,542 (Public Health & Social Work). Unfortunately, this information is inaccurate. According to the psychology department’s website (which is part of CASE), the base stipend for psychology graduate assistants is $20,154… a fact that can be confirmed by students in the psychology program. If we can’t even trust the administration to provide accurate figures, how can we trust that they will follow through on these promises or understand the difficulties facing FIU Graduate Students? While making mistakes is human and something we are all guilty of, the rapid release, errors, and vagueness of many of the provisions, leads to questions of the sincerity and process taken in announcing these changes.
Lastly, it is important to remember that the last time UGS made a commitment to supporting its graduate assistants, they did not follow through with their promises. In fact, while the information released to students was quick to note the 5% raise that was given to graduate students for the 2019-2020 school year (the first in over a decade), it ignored the fact that when this was announced UGS Dean Andres Gil stated that, “The plan is to begin a multiyear process of increasing the minimum amount of stipends.” While the minimum has increased, the idea of this occurring each year has not happened, resulting in decreasing real incomes for FIU graduate assistants.
While we hope that the administration will live up to the commitments that they are making, hope is not enough. We need graduate students to continue raising these issues and holding the administration accountable for the promises that have been made. This cannot be a board selected by the very administration that they are monitoring, as is the case with the Graduate Advisory Board. Nor can it put graduate students into student government positions where their tasks are much broader than just supporting graduate students, as is the case with the graduate student senators in the Student Government Association. Graduate students need a board elected by FIU graduate students and solely tasked with promoting graduate student interests and ensuring that the administration develops policies to support the graduate student body. Until a formal organization can be formed to fulfill this function, students from across campus must take it upon themselves to do so.
If you think that the situation facing FIU’s graduate students is untenable, please consider signing this petition calling on the FIU administration to examine and implement policies that would support our student body.
If you are an FIU graduate student and you want to join the fight to push for improvements for your fellow graduate students, please consider contacting the informal Graduate Student Activism Council (email@example.com). Your support can help push for meaningful change!
The opinions presented within this page do not represent the views of PantherNOW Editorial Board. These views are separate from editorials and reflect individual perspectives of contributing writers and/or members of the University community