By Nanette Asimov
Every undergrad at a big public university knows the problem: You have hundreds of classmates in your Psych 101 class, the professor is a distant voice at a far-off lectern, the teaching assistants are swamped, and you feel lost.
But classes at the University of California are only becoming more crowded and teaching assistants harder to find — even though students pay double the tuition of just five years ago, say graduate-student teaching assistants who released a report on Tuesday they call “Toward Mediocrity: Administrative Mismanagement and the Decline of UC Education.”
“When you have one teaching assistant and 300 students, you can’t have one-on-one time with the students or even small-group time where they’re receiving individual attention,” said Michelle Glowa, 28, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz who described one of the nine classes she has taught in physical and chemical sciences.
That introductory science class used to have five or six teaching assistants, she said. Since 2010, it’s had just one.
‘A real disservice’
“This is a real disservice to the students because they’re not learning the material. Over a quarter of the students were failing before the grades were adjusted up,” Glowa said, noting that low-income students are especially ill-served because they often come from high schools with fewer advanced classes and need more help.
Glowa and about 12,000 other teaching assistants, tutors and readers in the UC Student Workers’ Union hope their report will be an effective weapon in their labor negotiations, which have been going on since June.
The students are asking UC to create a Committee on Class Size at each campus so that problems can be addressed on a continual basis, said Josh Brahinsky, a graduate student in history at UC Santa Cruz who serves on the bargaining team.
Some undergraduates have joined their cause, including Toure Owen, 20, a junior at UC Berkeley studying political science.
‘Want smaller classes’
“I just want smaller classes and better paid (teaching assistants) so I can learn more effectively,” he said Tuesday on the Cal campus.
But UC says class size is not an appropriate topic to discuss with the union.
“Issues related to class sizes and quality are academic issues, not bargaining issues,” said Shelly Meron, a spokeswoman for UC.
Class size isn’t the only problem identified by the students.
More than half of graduate students offered a spot at UC choose to go elsewhere.
The reason, say students, is clear from UC’s own survey, conducted in 2010, showing that UC offers comparatively cheap financial packages to prospective doctoral students. The deals for teaching stipends and tuition waivers are $2,697 a year lower than those of competing institutions.
Combined with California’s higher cost of living, the students calculate that the gap is closer to $4,978 a year. Overall, student workers say they are paid about $17,000 to $18,000 a year, which many supplement with food stamps and student loans, said Amanda Armstrong, a doctoral student in rhetoric at UC Berkeley.
Meron disputed the salary figures, saying UC pays student workers more than Stanford, MIT and the University of Texas.
“Keep in mind that, by law, we can only employ these students at 50 percent time,” she said.
$5 million pledge
She also pointed to a $5 million pledge for recruiting graduate students that UC President Janet Napolitano announced last week.
“We’re continuing to look at ways we can support our graduate students while remaining conscious of our budget reality,” Meron said.
In their report, however, the graduate students said the lucrative executive compensation UC pays is evidence that much more money is available: “If the top 225 administrators in 2011 gave up their extra compensation and stuck to their salaries (averaging $335,500), we would save roughly $20 million, easily enough for massive amelioration.”
— Reach Nanette Asimov at firstname.lastname@example.org