Graduate Workers Struggle Under Discriminatory International Student Fee

Graduate Workers Struggle Under Discriminatory International Student Fee

TAA members marching with anti-mandatory-fee signsBetween the cost of moving to a new country, bureaucratic red tape, and culture shock, starting graduate school as an international student is tough. At UW–Madison, however, international students face another obstacle: a fee of $100 per semester just for them, which forces some of UW’s most cash-strapped students to cover the costs of their own surveillance.

One international student shares their experience below.


I am a “fully-funded” international Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, but I can barely afford to live. It’s tough to make ends meet as a graduate student at UW–Madison, period, but it’s even tougher for international students.

Not only do I pay more taxes than domestic students, but I’m also restricted from working more than 20 hours a week for pay during the semester. Whereas many of my American friends are getting additional jobs in bars or libraries to pay their rent (on top of their TA-ships), I am not legally allowed to do this. My “non-resident alien” status also precludes me from many national funding competitions, which means that much of my summer research has to be self-funded, or only partially funded by smaller university grants (which are heavily taxed).

If this financial burden weren’t enough, UW-Madison imposes a compulsory “international student fee” on international graduate students, valued at $100 per semester. This makes my annual fee contributions to the UW approximately $1400, which is nearly 10 percent of my take-home pay.

Even worse, this fee covers the costs of my surveillance under a federal program that requires universities to keep tabs on international students. The Madison City Council ruled this fee discriminatory in 2003, and the university declared it would absorb the costs. But in 2015, UW–Madison reintroduced the international student fee without consulting students. Now, I pay not only for my own surveillance but also for the International Student Services Office, an essential service for which the university should pay.

How am I supposed to live like this? Why is UW imposing an additional fee on its most financially vulnerable students? Why does UW offer “fully-funded” positions to international graduate students at all, when it is nearly impossible to live as a UW employee?

UW cites “the need to provide additional student support programs” as motivation for imposing the international student fee. But why should international students bear the cost of these programs? Why is UW exploiting their international graduate workers to fund their vision of being an internationally renowned institution? Why doesn’t UW admit that their international graduate workers have been searching for ways to qualify for food stamps in Wisconsin?

I have many demands, but let’s start with this one: Abolish the international student fee, as a first step toward improving the lives of international graduate students. This fee is discriminatory and financially burdensome. It is also damaging to the reputation of the University of Wisconsin. I and my international colleagues produce the world-class research and teaching that make this university somewhere foreign students want to attend in the first place. The least UW–Madison could do would be to not discriminate against us once we get here.

Ending the international student fee is a central goal of our 2019–2020 platform. International TAA members will be tabling this week at Union South and Library Mall to talk with international graduate students and share information about TAA projects and events.