Despite persistently claiming that graduate workers are not workers, the University of Chicago pays doctoral students to take courses, teach, conduct research, organize events, and much more each quarter. And each quarter, like clockwork, graduate students are expected to pay a portion of our paychecks back to the University in the form of the Student Services Fee (SSF). We are told that this fee funds “essential student services” and activities on campus, but the University is adamantly evasive about what it actually pays for, citing a nebulous assortment of benefits like “student health and wellness, recreational facilities and activities, and student programming.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and the switch to remote and hybrid learning have exacerbated the financial struggles of students and academic workers, and have highlighted the vague and problematic nature of the SSF. In spring 2020, under pressure from student organizers, including UChicago Labor Council, the administration reduced the SSF to $125 for the quarter, acknowledging that students were unable to access on-campus services. Since the fall, however, the fee has been restored to the full amount, $416 per quarter, even though many of the services and facilities supported by the SSF are still operating at severely reduced capacity and some are not available at all.
The SSF has always been an onerous and dubiously justified tax on UChicago students generally and graduate workers in particular. The fee is significantly higher than those paid at comparable universities: Northwestern University typically charges a student activity fee that is one quarter of UChicago’s SSF, but has waived fees for all graduate students during the pandemic. By contrast, our fee has increased by 20 percent since 2014. This means that over the course of an academic year, graduate workers are now charged over $1,200 for an ill-defined bundle of services. The expense is even higher for those enrolled in summer classes, who must pay the SSF during summer quarter as well as autumn, winter, and spring.
The administration’s unwillingness to reveal what this fee actually pays for is highly disturbing. Even under ordinary circumstances, graduate workers feel that it is well within our rights to know what they are being asked to subsidize with their stipends; during a pandemic, this is all the more urgent. If the services funded by the SSF are truly essential to “student life,” they ought to be included as part of graduate-worker funding packages and, for undergraduate students, should be covered by their already exorbitantly high tuition. If the University wishes to advertise its financial support for graduate programs, it should make good on that promise and fully fund graduate students’ basic costs of living, including healthcare and (under non-pandemic conditions) access to University facilities necessary to complete their jobs.
As everyone continues to endure pandemic conditions and many graduate workers, undergraduates, and their families continue to face lost income, the hundreds of dollars spent on the SSF make an enormous difference. Now, more than ever, graduate workers need relief. Students working from home have absorbed electricity and networking costs from the University, facing higher utility bills and often purchasing new equipment to establish effective home offices. For UChicago to continue to charge the full fee is not only nonsensical but exploitative. This is a cynical gesture from a university with a multibillion-dollar endowment, signaling that the administration views students as little more than sources of income.
In light of the ongoing and unprecedented burdens resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, UChicago GSU is demanding the immediate suspension of the Student Services Fee for the 2020–21 academic year, and refunds for those who have already paid for the autumn and winter quarters. We, the graduate workers, demand complete transparency regarding the uses of funds collected from the Student Services Fee in the future. We are asking for the administration to ensure that all incoming students be made aware of this fee within their offers of admission. Hundreds of graduate workers have signed a pledge to collectively withhold payment of the Student Services Fee until these demands are met. The graduate workers of the University of Chicago stand united in this pledge of refusal and call on the University’s administration to immediately adopt our demands.
The authors are members of Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago.
Correction on Feb. 9, 2021, 1:38 p.m. CST:
An earlier version of this article stated that the SSF was reduced during spring 2020 under pressure from student organizers, including UChicago for Fair Tuition. While campus organizers were advocating for the fee to be waived, UChicago for Fair Tuition was not yet formed. The campus group that put forth a petition demanding that the fee be waived was the UChicago Labor Council. The article has been updated to reflect this change.