By Emma Moynihan
Some members of the Albany Graduate Student Employees Union are withholding what they call “pay-to-work fees” that the university has been collecting since 1991 because they say the fees are burdensome and unfair.
Graduate students are required to pay around $750 in fees, on top of paying tuition. One of the fees included is the Academic Excellence fee which contributes to salaries of faculty (including graduate student employees) at the university.
The deadline to pay fees for the spring 2021 semester was February 15. More than 60 of 671 members of GSEU are still withholding fees in the hope the administration will abolish the fee, according to the union. The union has established a fund to help support those members who are expected to face a $50 monthly penalty for paying the fee.
Results from a recent survey by GSEU showed that members’ lives have been negatively impacted by these fees. According to the survey, many graduate students said the fees impose an extra burden on their finances, requiring them to visit food pantries, take on extra debt, and not leaving enough money at the end of the month to pay for heat.
When asked in the survey what they would do with the money if they didn’t have to pay fees next semester, one graduate student wrote, “I would put it towards my principal or my monthly loans. If nothing else, I would put it toward the cost of living in Albany (i.e. rent, food, etc). As a paid graduate student, the stipend and loans are barely enough to make it through the year.”
Kailey Loughran, GSEU fees co-chair committee, said the fees are not only hurting students but the university as well. “UAlbany and SUNY schools attract a lot of graduate students. If you don’t provide us with a decent living wage, you will lose that competitive edge and reputation for potential candidates, less people will apply to these schools. In reality, these fees aren’t only hurting us but they’re hurting the university as well,” Loughran said.
Administration has a different take on the fees.
“Graduate student employees do not pay fees because they are employed by the University. The fees are assessed because they are students,” Media and Communications representative for UAlbany, Jordan Carleo-Evangelist said.
Carleo-Evangelist says that these fees pay for critical services such as technology infrastructure as well as important health and mental health care for students. He says these broad-based fees are essential in order to provide such services for students.
Stony Brook University’s administration waived these fees for graduate student employees during the spring 2021 semester through the use of scholarships.
“If Stony Brook can do it, UAlbany can do it,” Loughran said.
In addition, a “Graduate Worker Fee Waiver Bill,” known as bill S3976, has been brought to the assembly and NYS senate. The bill would exempt all graduate student workers in the state of NY from paying the student fees.
The decision of whether the bill passes will be determined by April. If the bill does not pass, GSEU said it will continue to keep pressure on administration.
Ingrid Gauvin-Manning, the Business Agent for Albany GSEU, said they have an email and postcard campaign in progress. Gauvin-Manning added they hope to take further, more tangible actions if the bill is not passed and withholding fees is not effective.
GSEU has found immense support during their journey. The United University Professions (UUP) Albany Chapter originally voiced their support for GSEU’s efforts.
“We have made our support clear to campus administration and have supported GSEU's recent fees action of delaying their fees payments by urging our members to pledge money to help GSEU members pay late charges on those fees,” Aaron Major, president of UUP Albany, told the ASP.
Major said he personally can relate to the graduate student employees. If he had to pay hundreds of dollars in fees on top of tuition and room and board, a college education may have been out of the picture for him.