The 5,000 members of SUNY's Graduate Student Employees Union are fighting hard to include one of the Legislature's proposals in the next state budget to phase out double-digit fees taken out of their annual stipends.

Graduate student teaching staff and assistants make up the backbone of instruction at SUNY and CUNY campuses, but continue to have to pay back 15 to 20% of their annual salary back to the university system.

It's used to fund campus operating costs that have continued to rise over the last several years, especially without sufficient state funding.

"The fee is a literal pay-to-work system that only students in the Graduate Student Employees Unions have to pay to have the job that we do," said Brad Hershenson, a graduate student and organizer with the UAlbany Graduate Student Employees Union.

Graduate workers, who are full-time students and often participating in research, teach as much as 40% of the courses of SUNY's four research universities at Albany, Buffalo, Stonybrook and Binghamton.

They work about 20 hours weekly at all of the state's public colleges, teaching or grading assignments for hundreds of students. Their yearly stipends range from about $15,000 to $25,000 a year, depending on the campus and department.

"For us, lots of our graduate workers, they have to constantly visit the food pantry, they have to skip meals, they have to donate blood plasmas, and we just don't want to see that happen anymore," said Shirley Jin, an UAlbany lecturer and UAlbany Graduate Student Employees Union business agent. "And this year, we really would love to see the final budget will incorporate our request."

The Senate proposed $14 million in its one-house budget to cover the fees for graduate students, and attract more competitive students as campuses grapple with years of declining enrollment.

It's a provision based on legislation proposed by Senate Higher Education Committee chair Toby Ann Stavinsky.

The Assembly compromised to include a plan in its budget proposal to gradually phase out the fees for graduate student workers at $2.5 million per year.

It's not something Gov. Hochul included funding for in her executive budget proposal, which has pushed union members to fight harder for one of the Legislature's plans to be included in the final budget, now days late, as talks continue. They held a rally on campus last weekend hours after the April 1 deadline passed.

Representatives with Assembly and Senate leaders Wednesday said higher education funding and funding for SUNY have not yet been discussed as part of ongoing budget negotiations.

"Our workers are the backbone of instruction," Hershenson said. "We teach the classes, we grade the papers and we conduct the research."

Graduate workers have fought to eradicate the fees for more than two years, and say the 2023-24 budget must include higher pay or an end to these annual fees that cost students thousands of dollars, and force them to struggle to get an education and make ends meet — especially as education recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Assembly Higher Education Committee Chair Pat Fahy says the pandemic has pushed the state to fully fund K-12 Foundation Aid, and it's time to see the same committment for New York's higher education system.

"For years, we've given crumbs to the higher education system," Fahy said Wednesday. "We are not going to make it into the top tier of higher ed institutions in this country. And we're not, if we don't begin to pay and really keep step with some of the best systems in the country."

SUNY has continued to rely on increased student fees, which vary at each campus, instead of raising student tuition over the last several years.

Gov. Hochul proposed annual tuition increases in her budget tied to the Higher Education Price Index or 3% — whichever is lower, and millions of dollars in targeted funding for the research campuses.

It's a proposal lawmakers have met with deep pushback, prompting the Legislature to include millions more in funding for higher education.

Fahy said while the governor's proposed tuition hikes are controversial and unpopular with lawmakers, it sparked a significant debate that made higher education funding a priority in the next budget.

"You can't talk about driving research dollars, you can't talk about being at the cutting edge of the semiconductor industry or the artificial intelligence industry or life sciences with Wadsworth Labs if we're not going to invest in those systems," Fahy said.

Hochul’s budget includes an increase of $270 million in support for SUNY and CUNY four-year campuses, and base support for community colleges that does not penalize two-year campuses for enrollment declines. The governor's budget also proposed $856 million for SUNY and $604 million to CUNY for new capital funding, and nearly $1 billion in strategic funding for SUNY Transformation initiatives.