First-year Ph.D. student Tamar Ervin speaks at a Feb. 22 rally in front of UC Berkeley’s California Hall to fight against potential cuts to graduate student admissions and TAs. Credit: Ian Castro

Months after a massive higher education strike landed academic workers big raises across the UC system, UC Berkeley is still figuring out how it will foot the $38 million bill.

UC President Michael Drake has issued no guidance on how to pay for the strike, leaving campuses to account for the cost increases on their own. 

UC Berkeley has allocated an emergency fund of $5 million to cover raises for graduate researchers and is doling out an additional $13 million for student instructors. But the money won’t entirely cover the costs of wage increases, leaving individual academic departments to decide how to fund the rest — about $20 million for student researchers and instructors.

In response, departments at schools across the UC system are considering admitting fewer Ph.D. students and reducing the number of instructors for undergraduate classes. UC Berkeley has advised deans and department chairs to “carefully consider graduate admissions” and make use of waitlists. 

UAW, the set of unions representing UC academic workers, says cutting grad students would run counter to the UC’s mission of increasing access to higher education and hurt the quality of instruction. 

At a UAW rally in front of California Hall in February, first-year Ph.D. student Tamar Ervin read a letter from the unions calling on UC Berkeley officials to “cease all attempts to balance UC’s budget on the backs of UC workers” and Ervin’s peers expressed concern that their departments were discussing limiting the number TAs.

Ben Hermalin, UC Berkeley’s chief operating and academic officer, said he expects a dip in graduate student enrollment next year, but that doesn’t indicate a definite trend. 

“This first year, people are being very cautious, as they should be,” Hermalin said. It doesn’t necessarily mean long term that it would translate into a shrinking of our graduate student enrollment.”

Hermalin also said the quality of education won’t suffer if there are fewer TAs if the university makes better use of technology. For example, he said, automating grading through machine learning could free up time for graduate students to better help students.

Hermalin downplayed the long-term implications and extent of the cuts that will be necessary, explaining that the university was implementing a patchwork of changes to the budget to make it work in the short term and, in the long term, is pursuing growing revenue through its investments, philanthropy, intellectual property and other means.

Academic departments will ultimately make the final call

Per the new contract, pay for a first-graduate student at Cal will increase 7.5% on April 1, 29% in the fall, and 26% in fall 2024. By fall 2024, a typical grad student instructor would be earning $40,000 per year, according to an example pay scale provided by UAW. 

At the same time, the University of California has to stick to an agreement it made with the state to increase the number of graduate students by 2,500 over the next five years.

Hermalin said UC Berkeley needs to consider job prospects for graduating doctoral students in its admissions. “There are not as many tenure-track faculty positions as there once were,” he said, arguing that it was “somewhat immoral” to admit students to Ph.D. programs that offered little in the way of career prospects after graduation.

UAW 2865, the union representing graduate student instructors, denounced admissions reductions in a statement, with president Rafael Jamie arguing that it will mean fewer opportunities for Californians to pursue higher education “at a time when the State of California is looking to expand educational opportunities for students, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Decisions about how many graduate students to admit are ultimately up to individual departments, which receive funding from the university as well as from outside donors and grants. Historically, departments have been responsible for rising research costs and have made their own decisions about how many students they can afford to admit. 

The financial situation of each department, and even each research group, varies and fluctuates over time, making it difficult to generalize. Some departments with more limited funds may make larger cuts, while others can more easily absorb the increased costs of wages. 

In a survey by UAW 285, graduate students from 11 departments at UC Berkeley said their departments are planning to limit the number of admissions spots, and students from 19 departments said their departments are cutting the number of teaching assistants. (Students from all of UC Berkeley’s 100-plus graduate department programs were surveyed.) Hermalin said this kind of information is speculative as budgets continue to shake out.

Student instructors worry their pupils will get less personal support

Jedidiah Tsang, an undergraduate who TAs a popular computer science class, said cuts would make it even harder for students to get help at office hours. Credit: Ian Castro

Some student instructors say larger class sizes will impact the workload for TAs and make it difficult to offer undergraduates support tailored to their needs. 

“The bulk of the learning happens from graduate student instructors and TAs,” said Ervin, who helps teach an undergraduate physics course. “Increasing the student-to-TA ratio is detrimental for everyone involved, in terms of the quality of teaching that we’re able to offer as graduate students as well as the quality of education that an undergrad will have.”

Some TAs for popular classes, like computer science, say office hours are already oversubscribed: There is not enough time during office hours to support all the undergraduates who show up for help, so TAs have to field long lines.

“How can you build passion when you can only spend 10 minutes per student in an office hours queue of over 100 students, and some students can wait up to three hours for staff support without ever receiving help?” asked Jedidiah Tsang, an undergraduate TA for a computer science class that enrolls about 1,200 students each semester, during a Feb. 22 rally in front of California Hall.

Without additional funds, the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department could be in the position of limiting undergraduate enrollment in courses and cutting hours worked by undergraduate TAs by a third, according to John DeNero, a departmental administrator in a town hall presentation on its 2023-24 budget options. (The department doesn’t have a final budget yet and is currently bargaining over whether TAs who work eight hours a week will get their full tuition waived, which would significantly impact its budget.) 

“This approach sets us up for a downward spiral of drastic reductions in enrollment,” DeNero said. “I sure hope we don’t end up here, but I do think it’s a realistic description of the aggregate impact of our budget deficit and the appointment cost of the new contract.”

Fewer TAs would mean “forgetting the students that need the most support, the students from the under-resourced backgrounds,” Tsang said. 

Some classes, including in computer science and physics, are already using auto-grading for student work, a practice Tsang said saves time but provides little feedback to students who need it. Even so, the long lines at office hours persist. “You can’t simply scale away the unquantifiable value that individualized support brings to a student,” Tsang said.

Hermalin said he did not expect such drastic cuts to be necessary. The “doom and gloom scenario … doesn’t really reflect what the reality is,” he said. 

UC Berkeley, he said, was already planning to increase the use of technology in undergraduate education to better engage students. Now, financial pressure on the university could make it happen more quickly, but, Hermalin said, it was a direction the university was already headed.

University’s revenue is rising but expenses are rising faster

University officials said rising financial pressures make it difficult for UC Berkeley to weather the wage increases, which UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof described as a multi-million-dollar curveball.

Next year, Cal’s $3 billion budget is expected to grow by roughly $35 million, owing to another 5% increase in state funding agreed to by Gov. Gavin Newsom and rising tuition fees across the UC schools. 

But the university’s expenses are expected to grow more than $110 million next year, said Rosemarie Rae, UC Berkeley’s chief financial officer, owing to high utility costs, increasing academic wages and repairs for aging campus infrastructure.

Though California is providing more funds, the share of money provided by the state has been slashed in the last 20 years. The UC has increasingly relied on tuition and other funding sources like philanthropy to make up the rest.

To keep from incurring another budget deficit — the university eliminated its last deficit in 2019 — the campus is looking to trim down operating costs and is making small cuts in other areas, including closing three libraries to save $1.5 million per year.

Some UAW members are petitioning the state legislature to raise funds for the UC in the hopes of funding wage increases won during the strike without cuts to doctoral admissions or TA positions. 

Campus conversations about how to fund the wage increases and balance UC Berkeley’s budget are ongoing and the campus budget will be finalized May 31. 

A poster advertises a February rally at California Hall to fight against cuts to doctoral student enrollment and teaching assistant positions. Credit: Ian Castro
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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...