Higher Education

My last word on funding.

Well, things got a little heated in the comments over on Vince’s response to my response to his article.

For those of you that don’t want to try to navigate all the nested threads (which admittedly gave me a headache), here’s one last summary of my position for clarity’s sake.

The status quo is bad.


Collectivization of student funding cannot fix the system as it is.

This is because there is simply not enough money for all students to get the same funding and still have a living wage. Instead of the current system where some students get substantial funding, some partial funding, and some no funding, there would be a system in which no one gets enough funding.

Since the demand for access to graduate school is inelastic, the only way to increase funding is to cut down on students.

There are various arguments in favour of cutting down on the number of PhDs in circulation, and this is one way to do it. However it is still problematic: it restricts access to higher education according to funding rather than ability and desire, and essentially just means that the people who currently get partial funding or no funding would just not be allowed to get a degree at all. Drastic reductions also might have an effect on educational quality, since it would be difficult to fill classes and students have fewer colleagues (diverse or not).

It is not possible to earn a “living wage” through part-time contract work.

Whatever the hourly rate, regardless of how fair the working conditions, there is simply no way to earn a living wage purely through part-time student labour. A student with a standard TA contract would have to earn c. $100/hr to actually live on the income. Real funding requires stipends and grants, and it is just not helpful to equate everything a grad student does with labour, because it isn’t. That doesn’t mean we can’t fund them, only that looking at this as a wage/labour problem clouds the issue and in fact is unlikely to substantially ameliorate conditions.

It should not be anathema to insist we all think carefully about our participation in this system, including (and especially) those of us who are treated poorly by it.

We have to be able to tell our students and each other that sometimes the better choice really is to leave, or not to get started. This is not victim-blaming, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. Overhauling the entire system and forcing universities and academic departments to reduce their admissions is a huge undertaking, and not one likely to succeed any time soon. It will be easier, faster, and probably more effective to change norms among the next generation: if it looks like you’re getting a bad deal, that’s because you are, so maybe try and find a better one. And while I hope things improve, until they do, perhaps it’s best to be a little pragmatic.

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Dan has a PhD in historical musicology and has taught music history and theory at a major Canadian university. He mainly studies music from the Italian Renaissance when he's not busy performing stand-up comedy or playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. He occasionally tweets as @incontrariomotu and blogs about geeky stuff at The Otaku Skeptic. He is also the glorious editor-in-chief of School of Doubt.


  1. April 20, 2014 at 10:43 am —

    Here’s the comment I left on Vince’s post that is not showing there because it’s in moderation. I’m copying it here because it echoes some of what your post says and because I can only hope that I’m not moderated on the site I write for (I hope?):

    And for the record, my program (American) offered a yearly stipend for teaching two sections of freshman comp each term (don’t even talk to me about grading papers!) AND we got no tuition waiver. I lived mostly off student loans and now I’m paying them. I landed a tenure track gig but many of my friends did not. I do wish someone had told me: 1) That I could shop for a better funding deal; 2) How hard it would be to get a tenure track job if that’s what I wanted. But I have never truly wished that I had not been admitted to graduate school. That experience and education enriched my life and my Self in countless ways. I understand the arguments for limiting admissions, and I get that programs are not always honest with candidates about the profession. However, I never thought, when I was teaching freshman comp, that I was doing the same work as a professor, or that my stipend was my only compensation for my labor. The experience and the pedagogical education I was getting were part of my package–it made a difference that I had taught all that comp when I applied for teaching jobs after graduation. And now that I am a professor myself I know exactly how different it is. I do not spend most of my work time in the classroom. Not even CLOSE. I spend my time sitting in committee meetings and writing/rewriting policy and advising/enrolling students and taking my turn as president of the faculty and reading colleagues’ promotion and tenure applications and rewriting NCATE program reviews for the 90th time and writing recommendation letters, etc. plus infinity. Grading papers feels like REST sometimes, and squeezing in time to do my own research is enough to make me weep. I’m not saying I think grad funding doesn’t need reform, but do I think it’s more complicated than just labor = $.

    • April 20, 2014 at 4:30 pm —

      I approved your comment a few hours ago as soon as I saw it. I don’t know why it didn’t make it out of moderation, and you’re not certainly not on moderation at Queereka. 😉

  2. April 20, 2014 at 6:06 pm —

    Ha! No worries. Comments have been acting really weird for me lately here, so I didn’t think it was personal or anything. Thanks. 🙂

  3. April 21, 2014 at 7:06 pm —

    I am a graduate student at Duke—not a member of the collective but good friends with all of them. I helped to organize the MLA Subconference at which they presented on their collectivization project, and which dealt more broadly with academic labor issues, skyrocketing tuition, and the crisis of contingent labor in the academy. If you are interested in these issues you should check us out—all of our panels are available, in full, online. We are already planning a repeat performance for next January in Vancouver.
    I don’t think anyone involved with the Duke Collective sees it as *the* solution to the systemic problems plaguing higher education. They see it as a creative, immediate and practicable measure to mitigate the economic and psychological vulnerability which so often accompanies graduate studies, especially in the humanities. Of course we need to be pushing for deep structural changes, both in terms of graduate funding and in relation to adjunct and contingent workers. Those are long-term battles. But in the meantime, this provides a means for people to effect immediate change in the conditions of their daily lives, both materially and otherwise.
    Your assertion that graduate student work is not a “wage/labor issue” strikes me as deeply disengenous. Graduate student fellowships are taxed as income, and student workers at public universities are covered by collective bargaining laws, so your claim that this is not a labor issue flies in the face of US tax and labor law. If graduate students spend only a portion of their time teaching and grading, the same can be said of senior faculty, whose salaries are not intended to cover only classroom time but also time spent writing, research, presenting and publishing, organizing conferences, etc.
    Beyond that, your attempt to distinguish between “work” (teaching and grading) and “non-work” (writing, publishing, mentoring, organizing conferences) ignores a whole body of research which has challenged this division both within the academy and in relation to the broader economy—whether in terms of feminist debates about productive versus reproductive labor, autonomist critiques of affective and “immaterial” labor, etc. While I think some of the discourses surrounding immaterial labor miss the continued relevance and centrality of production—particularly in the third world—the truth is that within the post-industrial economies the boundaries between “work and “non-work” have become increasingly hard to quantify, both in terms of the breakdown of the division between home and office and in the trend towards increasingly informational and communicative forms of labor. (Google does not require its workers to clock out when they are having an exciting conversation about a potential project, e.g., and to clock back in when they are writing code.) To a certain extent this renders the labor conditions of the broader economy increasingly *similar* to those of the university, which was never really amenable to forms of labor-analysis predicated on the Fordist factory model.
    Most problematically, you seem to naturalize the current funding and labor conditions of higher education as the result of inexorable “market forces” rather than as the product of specific economic and political choices. When a department replaces a former tenure-track line with one (or two, or twelve) new administrative positions, or when universities cut departmental funding while putting a million dollars towards a climbing wall or a new sports stadium, these are all funding and policy *choices* which can be contested as such. The dearth of decent jobs on the academic market is not the result of some “natural” supply/demand problem but of the replacement of faculty positions with increasing numbers of adjuncts and lecturers, who now teach some 70% of all US college and university courses. (This change did not just “happen”; it represents the failure of three generations of faculty to fight to preserve the conditions in which they lived and labored—very much a wage/labor issue, and a political one!) Likewise the choice to devote less funding to graduate students and more to legacy projects and ever-expanding administrative costs is just that—a choice—one which shows very clearly that the priorities of university regents and boards of trusties have less and less to do with the aims of the university as such, whether in terms of affordability of access or quality of education. In short, we can sit around waiting or hoping for “things to get better,” or we can recognize that things only get better when we fight to make them so.

    • April 21, 2014 at 7:27 pm —

      assertion that graduate student work is not a “wage/labor issue”

      I said that doing a PhD is not purely a labour issue. This seems to me obviously true and ought to be uncontroversial. It seems to me disingenuous to claim that PhD studies are equivalent to faculty work. First of all, they clearly aren’t (anyone who has done both will say so). Second of all, please explain how a PhD student taking a graduate seminar is doing labour while an advanced undergraduate taking the same seminar is not.

      Graduate student fellowships are taxed as income

      Not all kinds of funding are, but regardless of this fact, so are gambling profits. I’m afraid this doesn’t mean studying is labour, only that people are taxed on their income.

      you seem to naturalize the current funding and labor conditions of higher education as the result of inexorable “market forces” rather than as the product of specific economic and political choices

      I am saying that the situation is what it is and that, barring structural changes (which, for the zillionth time, I think would be a good thing), these are the market forces in play and there isn’t really any way around them for individual students.

      The dearth of decent jobs on the academic market is not the result of some “natural” supply/demand problem but of the replacement of faculty positions with increasing numbers of adjuncts and lecturers, who now teach some 70% of all US college and university courses.

      I am not addressing the wider academic job market at all here (only PhD funding), so I don’t know what leads you to think I disagree with the fact that it is a mess or that I don’t think it should be fixed as much as possible. But again, until it does get fixed, the dismal job market for PhDs is another reason to advise students not to go to grad school if they aren’t going to be compensated fairly for their efforts during that time.

    • April 21, 2014 at 7:36 pm —

      Sorry, one last thing:

      I don’t think anyone involved with the Duke Collective sees it as *the* solution to the systemic problems plaguing higher education.

      I’m sure they don’t, and I actually did wish them well with this project in my original piece, in case you didn’t see it.

      I included that here because I was repeatedly accused of ignoring the “point” of Vince’s original article, even though my point is precisely that it is not a solution to these wider problems and that, barring very large changes that are unlikely to occur soon, we need to be pragmatic about advising students when it comes to the decision to enter academia.

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