By Cody Trojan

Sudden changes to leave of absence policies by UCLA administration have alarmed many graduate students. Growing outrage voiced in recent meetings of the Social Sciences Council and UC Student Worker Union has led to a planned town hall meeting this Wednesday at noon in Public Affairs 4357.

As of September, the UCLA Graduate Division revamped its leave of absence policies to impose new restrictions which would allow graduate students less control over their time-to-degree, no ability to take time off from school to do academic work (including fieldwork) and new fees.

The unacknowledged upshot of the policy is that graduate students are banned from doing academic work unless they are paying tuition. This is not the kind of autonomy and flexibility necessary for any of us grad students to become serious scholars, teachers and researchers.

Prior to the new changes imposed this quarter, graduate students could take up to six quarters of leave from their graduate programs for reasons of exam preparation, fieldwork and dissertation prep, financial hardship, family obligations and medical emergencies.

With the new changes handed down, the maximum quarters of leave for any reason has been cut in half down to three quarters, and all academic reasons have been eliminated as legitimate reasons to take leave.

The elimination of all academic rationales for leaves means that the long-standing practice of students taking time off without penalty, to conduct fieldwork, to improve their dissertation or to collect data, is now barred absent penalties and fees.

So what options do the new rules give to students who want to take leave to become better scholars and improve their work? Under Chancellor Gene Block’s administration, the Graduate Division created the in absentia status in 2009 as a way of forcing students to pay tuition whenever they are doing academic work. Unlike the old leave of absence policies, however, in absentia status requires students to pay 15 percent of all tuition and fees.

This means that taking time off to do academic work now costs a minimum of over $700 per quarter (much more for out-of-state students and students with additional professional fees). Moreover, the clock counting the student’s time-to-degree keeps running, negatively affecting funding channels for the student and for their department.

Students who get sick or need leave for any purpose after the newly-imposed maximum of three quarters will be forced to file in-absentia status and pay the tuition and fees.

The real barriers that graduate students face in completing their degrees are clear: more papers to grade as section sizes increase, less support through fellowships and increasing uncertainty of where one will find one’s next position as one bounces hopefully from working as a teaching assistant to a graduate student researcher to a reader.

If the Chancellor and Graduate Division really want to help graduate students attain their degrees sooner, the steps to get there are clear: increase financial support for grad students, reduce TA-to-student ratios and empower graduate students to do their work through flexible leave of absence time.

Please join us for a graduate student town hall meeting to discuss these new changes and decide on a course of action that will improve grad student success, not undermine it.

Trojan is a graduate student in political science.