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Are graduate assistants at the University of Memphis being paid enough? Some don't think so

Faculty and students at the University of Memphis are calling for better wages for graduate assistants on campus, saying that the current rates they receive are simply not enough to support them while they pursue their degrees.

“To make sure graduate assistantships are fulfilling, we should go back to old model where we are paying their tuition and for their labor,” said Meghan Cullen, vice-president of the campus chapter of United Campus Workers, a labor union that represents higher education faculty in several states.

Cullen was referring to the fact that the university recently changed its pay model for graduate assistants.

Under the old model, most graduate assistants were paid both a monthly stipend and had their tuition fully covered.

Now, departments have three options for paying their graduate assistants. One is that departments can pay the old way (full tuition coverage and a monthly stipend) or they can just offer a scholarship to help cover tuition instead of offering a monthly stipend. Finally, at the most minimal option, departments can opt to pay graduate assistants hourly, as long as they are paid at least $10 an hour.

Low wages have hit international graduate assistants particularly hard, forcing them to make sacrifices because they can’t afford other options.

“Someone is not starting a family because of this,” said Mahade Salam, a PhD student in the university’s civil engineering department.

Salam, who is originally from Bangladesh, said that he and his wife who is also a graduate assistant at the university, have had to put off having children because of how much it would cost.

Another student, Nareen Mirza, a friend of Salam’s and fellow graduate assistant who is also from Bangladesh, had to leave her family behind when she came to study at the university.

She’d like her husband, who is still in Bangladesh to live with her here, but because of how little she makes, the two can’t afford it.

Salam believes that many of their woes would be solved if the university would just pay them more because “everything points to the income”.

Unfortunately, giving them more money isn’t as cut and dry as it sounds.

There are several factors involved in determining their overall pay including if they are given tuition coverage, their degree level and where the actual money they are paid with comes from. Some departments pay through the money allotted to them by the university, while others, like Salam’s department for example, pay some graduate students through research grants.

Luke Brake, a PhD graduate teaching assistant in the university’s department of English, agreed that graduate assistants should be paid more but recognizes the complexity of the issue and that’s it not exclusive to the University of Memphis.

“It’s a hard time for universities in general,” he said.

But he said if they are paid more, it’s going to provide an overall benefit to the university.

“I think if you paid them more, they’d be better teachers and would get out of here with degrees faster,” he said.

While they all agree that pay should be raised, Cullen, Salam and Brake have different ideas on where pay should be set.

Brake hesitated to give a figure but suggested that $30,000 per academic might be good.

Salam gave figures for both PhD and masters graduate assistants saying that they should be paid $2,200 and $1,200 in the form of a monthly stipend, respectively.

Cullen said that UCW would like to see a version of the old model restored.

Under their plan, graduate assistants would receive full tuition coverage and a minimum $15 an hour stipend.

“The minimum wage for GAs should match the minimum wage at the university,” she said.

And like Salam suggested, she said the plan would allow for raises based on a student’s degree level.

She recognizes the plan is costly, she estimates around $29,000 per student at a base level, but she remains confident that the university currently has the ability to do it, even if it requires some adjustments.

“The money is there, but its where we spend it that changes,” she said.

The university did not respond to a request to comment before this article was published.

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