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Temple University withholds tuition assistance from striking grad students

“This is needlessly cruel,” a lead negotiator for the union said

Temple University graduate students have been on strike since Jan. 31, fighting for higher wages and better health-care coverage. (Stanley Collins/ Stanley Collins)
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Temple University has withdrawn tuition assistance for more than a hundred of its graduate students who have been on strike for a week, an unprecedented move in the nascent graduate labor movement.

Teaching and research assistants at the public university in Philadelphia received notices Wednesday that their tuition remission had been removed for the spring semester. The benefit is worth up to $20,000 a year, according to the university. Students must pay their full tuition balance by March 9 or face a financial hold on their account and a $100 late fee.

“This is needlessly cruel,” said Matthew Ford, 36, a lead negotiator for the Temple University Graduate Students’ Association, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “It has definitely angered and energized a lot of people.”

Ford, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Temple, said the university also has begun stripping students of their health insurance, leaving some unable to fill prescriptions and forcing others to cancel doctor’s appointments.

“This is a slap in the face to the Temple grads and all of the work they do to serve their students,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “The AFT stands in solidarity with TUGSA as they continue to fight for a living wage and a fair contract.”

Before graduate students took to the picket lines on Jan. 31, Temple had warned that participating in the strike and walking off the job would put their tuition coverage and compensation at risk. The university said Pennsylvania law prohibits the public institution from paying workers who refuse to work, and tuition remission is considered compensation.

“Because striking workers are not entitled to tuition remission, they have been notified of their obligation to make arrangements to pay their tuition, consistent with how the university treats other students who have unpaid tuition obligations,” the university said in a statement Wednesday.

Amid pandemic, graduate student workers are winning long-sought contracts

Temple said it could reverse the policy or prorate tuition if the strike comes to an end soon. The university noted that over 80 percent of graduate students remain at work.

While the university may have the legal right to withhold pay, Ford argues that cutting off tuition and other benefits is a choice.

Temple and the graduate student union have been locked in negotiations since January 2022. After months of deadlock, the union went on strike on Jan. 31 for the first time in its 20-year history.

Wages are a key point of contention between the university and graduate workers. The union is seeking to raise the average pay for teaching and research assistants to over $32,000, up from the average $19,500 students now receive. Temple, however, is offering 3 percent raises over the four-year contract, which would lift the average wage to roughly $22,000 in 2026. The university said graduate assistants only work 20 hours a week.

“The cost of living and the amount of money we make have diverged significantly in the last several years,” Ford said. “Other universities have stepped up to pay their employees fairly, that really motivates a lot of our people to take action.”

Graduate student workers are also pressing for the university to extend health-care coverage to their dependents and increase parental leave. Both sides say they are willing to return to the bargaining table, though there are no planned meetings this week.

Since 2021, there has been a wave of labor protests across the country and in higher education, including strikes by graduate students at Columbia, New York and Harvard universities.

Graduate labor organizing has been met with resistance from universities, but Temple’s decision to withdraw financial benefits from strikers is unusual, said William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College.

“A threat of a retaliatory measure in response to a strike has occurred before, but it is frequently counterproductive,” Herbert said. “It can exacerbate the conflict, lengthen its duration, and lead to greater labor and community support for the strike.”

In the wake of Wednesday’s action, Ford said, more graduate students are joining the picket line.