By John Peters / Socialist Project.
More than 12,000 Ontario public college faculty were on the picket line rather than in their classrooms on Monday morning after talks between the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) and the College Employer Council failed to produce a tentative collective agreement.
“On October 14, we presented Council with a streamlined offer that represented what faculty consider to be the bare minimum we need to ensure quality education for students and treat contract faculty fairly,” said JP Hornick, chair of the union bargaining team. “We carefully crafted a proposal that responded to Council’s concerns about costs in a fair and reasonable way.”
“Unfortunately, Council refused to agree on even the no-cost items, such as longer contracts for contract faculty and academic freedom,” she said. “This leaves us with no choice but to withdraw our services until such time as our employer is ready to negotiate seriously.”
Hornick said Council is committed to a “Walmart model of education” based on reducing the role of full-time faculty and exploiting underpaid contract workers who have no job security beyond one semester.
OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas called the current impasse “regrettable” but said college faculty have the full backing of the union’s 130,000 members and their $72-million strike fund.
“Our union has a track record of getting deals done without work stoppages,” he said. “Unfortunately, that has not happened in this case. Nonetheless, I encourage the colleges to get back to the table so we can wrap this up swiftly, for the good of students and faculty alike.”
Ontario college faculty at Seneca, Humber, Centennial, and George Brown College are now on strike in Toronto, as well as across the province, affecting 24 colleges and more than 200,000 full-time students, and hundreds of thousands more enrolled on a part-time basis. This follows a strike at Laurentian University in Sudbury in early October. These are but the latest stories in the never-ending upheaval across Canada’s and Ontario’s post-secondary education sector.
Since 2008, there have been 20 faculty association strikes and countless others led by unions representing other members of the university and college community, including those recently at York University (2009, 2015) and the University of Toronto (2015). In Ontario’s college sector, this is the second province wide strike of faculty since the 1980s, but there have been many other smaller labour conflicts at Ontario’s colleges.
For many Canadians, all this may seem a little strange. Professors are better known for chasing neutrinos down mine shafts, or for holding events celebrating Margaret Atwood, than for walking picket lines. Yet one doesn’t have to look too far for reasons why faculty and graduate students are striking – it is of course about money. But not in the usual sense that we think about money during strikes.
Rather, the first big financial issue is that Canadian governments have cut public funding of universities and colleges. In public speeches, government officials talk in lofty terms of their investment in public post-secondary education. But the reality is rather different. Canada has actually cut its public funding since 2008, and now we rank in the bottom half of advanced economies, spending well below what Denmark, Norway, and Sweden invest in their public post-secondary teaching, research, and innovation.
The picture is the same in Ontario, where the provincial government has reduced public funding for universities and colleges and now ranks last in public per-student funding in Canada.
Walmart-ization of Colleges
The second thorny issue relates to how quickly university and college administrators’ have seized on the “modern and efficient” business models for university operation.
On the basis of ostensibly saving money, “Run the universities and colleges like a corporation” has become the new mantra, often followed by the equally faulty idea that students are the “new customers” and that faculty have to work harder to serve them better.
The outcomes? None that is surprising. Ontario universities and colleges rely more on tuition fee increases and student debt than any others in Canada.
Universities and colleges have also hired more six-figure administrators than ever before, doubling their numbers of administrators and more than doubling their administration costs into the millions over the past decade.
Universities and colleges have also appointed corporate executives to their boards of governors to oversee new arcane financing arrangements, while turning to the private sector for lawyers to dispense advice on how to run negotiations and seek concessions from their faculty.
Now university and college administrations across Canada (often following government directives) have opted for the next step in their new “education as a business” model – arguing that they need to cut costs and increase workloads. Typically, this has led to program and staff cuts, while also ballooning class sizes and hiring more part-time and temporary faculty.
But for faculty this has meant the agonizing choice to either allow the administration to erode the quality of education, or defend the quality of public education and go on strike. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Reinvesting for the Future
Rather than cutting funding, governments need to make the choice to reinvest in post-secondary education. The federal government’s current transfers to post-secondary education are shameful: less than 0.2 per cent of GDP. Cash-strapped provincial governments’ public investments on post-secondary education are only modestly better.
Publicly invest and eliminate tuition fees, as most West European countries do, and the federal and provincial governments can actually claim to be supporting universities as “drivers of innovation.”
Universities also need to stop thinking about themselves as being private businesses. They are not. The more practical solution is for universities and colleges to operate like public institutions again – letting professors and students have a say in how their institutions are run, and ensure that universities operate on a not-for-profit basis.
Establish public university and college boards to ensure accountability, cut executive salaries, eliminate private endowments and business appointees, and have business actually step up and hire students into apprenticeships and internships, and we can again be on the path to making our universities better places for teaching, discovery, and engagement. •
John Peters is an associate professor of labour studies at the School of Northern and Community Studies, Laurentian University. This article first published by the Toronto Star.