About 300 to 400 graduate students and others turned out to Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus Wednesday to protest a proposed tax on their waived tuition. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

UC Berkeley graduate students turned out in force at Cal on Wednesday to protest a proposed student tax hike they say could prevent non-wealthy students from pursuing graduate degrees. The rally mirrored many others that took place at universities around the country Wednesday.

The tax bill passed by the House of Representatives would tax graduate students on their waived tuition. The provision has been called a “ghost tax,” because it would tax up to tens of thousands of dollars the students never receive as income. A Ph.D. student might, for example, currently receive and pay taxes on a $30,000 annual stipend, but, under the new bill, they would be taxed on the additional $25,000 that makes up the tuition at the university as well.

“The GOP tax bill hurts student workers, dis-incentivizes higher education and hurts the university,” said graduate student Robin Pearce, speaking at the rally, which drew 300 to 400 people to a sunny Sproul Plaza around noon.

The event was organized by the graduate student and postdoctoral unions, along with other campus labor and political groups. Union representatives delivered speeches, interspersed with chants, before marching to deliver a letter to the office of UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ. Similar “Grad Tax Walkout” protests also took place Wednesday at other schools, reportedly including all other UC campuses.

Graduate tax hike protest at UC Berkeley on Nov. 29, 2017. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Graduate tax hike protest at UC Berkeley on Nov. 29, 2017. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Speakers and attendees repeatedly said the proposed tax increase could have a “catastrophic” effect on the graduate student population in the U.S. and on the research they produce. The proposed reform would require UC Berkeley graduate students to pay between $1,200 and $8,000 more in taxes, according to analysis presented by a doctoral student at the rally.

The proposed tax “threatens to return universities to a time when they were the exclusive purview of the leisured class,” said Wendy Brown, professor of political science, at the rally.

Graduate students in attendance said it is already a challenge to make ends meet in the Bay Area.

“The stipend we get is just enough to cover basic expenses,” said Emma Carroll, a Ph.D student in the molecular and cell biology department. She said the extra cost would force many of her peers to drop out, and younger students to shun higher education, plugging the workforce pipeline.

“In our field, you have to go to graduate school. It’s akin to an attack on biomedical research as a whole, which is not a partisan issue. Everyone gets cancer,” Carroll told Berkeleyside.

Graduate tax hike protest. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Graduate tax hike protest. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

UC Berkeley faculty and administrators have joined the graduate students in condemning the GOP tax bills. This week, the UC system launched a public campaign against the bills. The university system estimates that 30% of its students and their families depend on provisions of the current tax law, including the tax-exempt tuition waiver. The campaign also takes aim at other provisions of the proposed changes, including the proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual coverage mandate.

Speakers at the protest said they consider administrators and regents complicit in the decreasing affordability of higher education, including by approving a tuition hike this year, the first bump following a six-year freeze.

The Berkeley Faculty Association has spoken out against the “grad tax.”

“This provision would harm the welfare of many of our students, making it difficult to recruit students and even threaten the ability of many departments to sustain their doctoral programs,” wrote Michael Burawoy, chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association, in a message to faculty and student leaders.

Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington, whose district includes UC Berkeley, came to the protest as well, and said he later delivered a speech at California Hall when the group gave the letter to Christ.

At the rally, a graduate student speaker directed everyone in attendance to enter the numbers for California’s Senators in their phones on the spot, telling the protesters to call and demand that Democrats withhold consent from Senate business until the tax bill is dead.

The Senate Republicans’ version of the tax reform bill does not include a graduate student tax increase. That bill could be up for a vote as soon as this week.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...