A new battle appears to be brewing between academics and the University of California (UC), following unions’ success in negotiating substantial pay rises and improved benefits for staff. This dispute centres on a possible plan by UC to cut the number of graduate students enrolling in the upcoming academic year.

An unprecedented 40-day strike by tens of thousands of academics at the University of California system and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in November and December over pay and working conditions was resolved just before Christmas. The negotiations delivered a big win for the unions, with UC postdocs receiving a 20–23% pay rise, followed by annual pay increases of at least 3.5% under a new five-year contract, while teaching assistants and associate instructors secured a 7.5% salary increase under a new two-and-a-half-year contract.

But now the United Auto Workers (UAW), through which UC employees negotiated their new contracts, says that UC is threatening major enrolment cuts to PhD programmes for the 2023–2024 year to pay for the rises included in the new contracts. The academic unions are publicly opposing such action, pointing out that UC had pledged to expand enrolment by 8000 undergraduate students and 2500 graduate students by 2027 in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars per year in increased state funding.

Results from a recent survey circulated by the UAW division representing UC graduate workers indicated that they had been informed of plans to reduce enrolment for the 2023–2024 academic year. Many of the respondents also reported they had heard about plans to increase class sizes and shrink the size of research groups, and materials shared with workers by faculty, such as presentations and meeting notes, confirmed these plans, according to the UAW.

However, Roqua Montez, a spokesperson for the UC Office of the President, tells Chemistry World that his office has not provided any explicit guidance to campuses instructing them to reduce student enrolment in the upcoming budget year. ‘Given that the contract is in the final budgeting and initial implementation phase across our system, it would be premature to speculate on any impacts on enrolment,’ he says.