EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece has been updated to include a response from the university.
Over the past year, American universities have been eager to tout their role in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. Among them, the University of Texas at Austin has taken particular pride in its role in developing and delivering vaccines and in graduating its first class of Dell Medical School students. However, these avowed commitments to health ring hollow considering that UT Austin, like many universities and medical centers across the country, fails to prioritize the health of its own students and employees. The university’s careless response to Covid emphasized “good choices” over strong, central leadership and transparent reporting. While UT does not report deaths on its Covid dashboard, graduate workers know of at least three staff members who died of the virus over the past year.
Now, in the midst of a pandemic and return to in-person classes on a campus that will not require masks or vaccines, the university has announced a health insurance change that effectively slashes premium support for approximately 4,100 graduate student workers, nearly a fifth of the university’s 19,200 benefits eligible employees. This profit-over-people framework comes on the heels of graduate workers’ organizing for safe and dignified working conditions to mitigate the effects of Covid in response to the university’s consistent refusal to prioritize their well-being.
In early April, the university announced that starting September 1, graduate student workers who have been covered by UT Select, the university’s faculty and staff insurance plan, will be switched to Academic Blue, a plan designed for undergraduate students who have fewer needs. UT’s Graduate School, which is responsible for planning and administering the switch, justifies the decision by claiming that it offers a solution to the problem of summer gaps in insurance coverage, but it is clear that our benefits are being downgraded overall. Academic Blue offers worse coverage for a variety of expensive medical needs, including hospital stays, specialist care, and prescriptions.
Since the announcement, one current graduate student worker with type 1 diabetes (T1D) has, after consultations with their doctor and extensive insurance research, calculated the effects of the switch on their health care needs. Under Academic Blue, their costs will rise by $2,183 annually. They have had to alter their treatment plan significantly. Because Academic Blue will not cover their current prescription, they have had to switch insulin brands, which could have adverse health effects. “My T1D check-ups will go from four times per year to three times per year,” they mentioned, “I will also stop attending psychological therapy (two or three times per month) because I will have to use that money on T1D supplies.”
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This reduction in benefits is essentially a pay cut that magnifies the already precarious conditions of many graduate workers who are paid poverty wages. The average salary of a benefits-eligible graduate student worker at UT Austin is $15,775 a year, despite the fact that the living wage in Austin has skyrocketed to $32,000 a year for a single person with no dependents. With Academic Blue, a trip to the emergency room could mean financial ruin.
It seems paradoxical that a renowned public university in a booming metropolis that has spent over $436 million to create a medical center would drastically cut health insurance benefits. Unfortunately, this is indicative of a dismal trend: As recent scholarship demonstrates, universities and medical centers that operate largely tax-free as nonprofits because of their historical mandate to “serve the public good” in fact rely on exploitation of low-wage workers and the communities in which they operate. Professor Gabriel Winant’s history of the US health care industry traces the relationship between deindustrialization and the contemporary dominance of sectors that fulfill social reproduction needs, notably health care and education, which coalesce in higher education institutions with large medical centers. Care workers in these industries, which operate on low profit margins, are grossly underpaid by institutions that use legal and financial practices that avoid taking responsibility for their labor conditions. As Winant puts it, “Care workers are at once everywhere and nowhere. They are responsible for everyone, but no one is responsible for them.”
Similarly, focusing on education rather than health care, professor Davarian L. Baldwin’s work shows how universities exploit their local communities by suppressing wages and through land-grab gentrification schemes. The “meds and eds” growth strategy relies on exploitation of Black and Latinx workers who perform low-paid care work.
UT Austin exemplifies Baldwin’s concept of “UniverCities,” especially in the university’s extensive landholdings that have contributed to the gentrification of East Austin; large, profit-generating research and medical facilities; low pay for graduate students and staff; and a well-funded police force. Its decision to slash the health benefits of 5,000 graduate workers sets a dangerous precedent for other UT System workers and makes it, one of Austin’s largest employers, participate in the race to the bottom in labor conditions that universities often lead.
Both Baldwin and Winant’s work demonstrates how the burden of university profit-seeking at employee and community expense largely burdens people of color, especially Black and Latinx care workers. Likewise, due to larger racial inequalities in generational wealth and in health care access, UT’s decision to slash graduate worker benefits will likely compound barriers to health and well-being that Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian American, and students from other historically excluded groups face. Graduate student workers with disabilities, chronic illnesses, and those who are transgender will, in many cases, face increased costs. This decision contradicts the university’s avowed commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion, as it will make pursuing graduate education more difficult for students who already face significant structural barriers in higher education.
“With this insurance change (and due to specific health concerns that would make this insurance far too expensive for me) I sought out full time paid work that provides full coverage of health insurance,” said one graduate worker who responded anonymously to a survey about graduate workers’ concerns about the switch conducted by Underpaid@UT, a graduate student organization fighting for a living wage and fair labor conditions for graduate student workers. “I decided to return to full time work and finish my second year of my program at the same time. I will likely need to go down to partial enrollment to make this work.” UT’s decision to slash graduate worker benefits—which the Graduate School undertook without providing a platform for feedback from graduate students, faculty, or staff—has struck a nerve across campus. On May 10, Underpaid@UT launched a petition to ask the university to delay implementation of this decision.
Speaking in support of the campaign in coordination with Underpaid@UT and the Texas State Employee’s Union at a recent UT System Board of Regents meeting, graduate student alumnus Raghav Shroff recounted how he was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in his second year of graduate school. Because he was covered by UT Select, he was able to complete graduate school while receiving the medical care that he needed.
“The medicine for that under [the faculty and staff-level plan] was only $10 a month with co-pay,” Shroff said. “Under this new plan, AcademicBlue, it would cost $1800 a month. That’s nearly what my entire monthly stipend was. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I would have to choose between lifesaving medical care versus finishing my PhD.”
These organizing efforts have yielded results. Initially, the Graduate School planned to classify premium payments as a “taxable fringe benefit” instead of as health insurance, which would increase the financial burden the switch will put on graduate workers. It was only after months of continued pressure from Underpaid@UT that the Graduate School admitted that it could not legally tax health insurance. “While there will always be tradeoffs in selecting one health care plan over another, our goal was to select the plan that offered the greatest value to the greatest number of graduate students. We worked with graduate students in making that determination and believe this choice is to the benefit of our students,” said Mark J. T. Smith Dean of the Graduate School and Sr. Vice Provost for Academic Affairs.
The Graduate School announced that the university will save $10.9 million per year on this switch. But raising stipends while cutting benefits at the expense of graduate student workers is not a genuine raise, and such austerity-informed decisions are not the only option. As part of the UT system, which at $31B has the country’s second largest endowment, UT Austin could exercise its freedom to “fund excellence” to pay graduate students a living wage and ensure that they have access to health care. It has not done that; instead, in the recent legislative session, UT President Jay Hartzell put his weight behind an appropriation of $3 million to $6 million in funding to create a Liberty Institute on UT’s campus, which will be “dedicated to free markets, economic development, private enterprise and personal liberty.” If UT Austin’s commitment to advancing health care was genuine, it would ensure that all of its employees, especially those who have worked tirelessly during the pandemic, are provided with adequate insurance.