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Ontario's Striking Universities Prove the System Is Flawed

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stevanovicigor via Getty Images
stevanovicigor via Getty Images

We have strikes and unrest at the two largest Universities in Ontario, Toronto and York, plus enforced layoffs at Wilfred Laurier, because of a "revenue shortfall." What is going on?

The University of Toronto case exemplifies the poor state of relations between most university administrations and their staff. Since 2000, provincial support for the university system has declined quite markedly, while student numbers have increased significantly. At present only around 50 per cent of university revenue comes from direct funding from the province. Most of the balance comes from student tuition fees, both for undergraduate and graduate students. These tuition fees have increased steadily, at well above the rate of inflation. Universities have become much more focused on a "business strategy" rather than focusing on their original intent to be institutions of public service. To a certain extent, given the lack of interest from several provincial governments, this is hardly surprising. However, this is also mixed in with the perceived "globalization" of higher education. One result of this is a desire (some would call it an obsession) by the university management to rise as high in the global rankings as possible.

One of the primary measurements used to "quantify" this rather unquantifiable ranking, is the research output, primarily in the amount of external grant money brought in by researchers, and by the output of research papers indicating that new research has been done, adding to the sum of human knowledge. Now it turns out that quality of teaching (as opposed to student numbers) is actually not that significant in most of the global ranking systems, so in order to maximize their global significance, most universities have been pumping resources into the research side of their activities, while neglecting their teaching duties.

The results of this are that more and more classes are taught by poorly paid contract instructors and that average class size has increased. Universities have also invested heavily in new building projects, particularly for "prestige" programs, and in projects to attract more students, such as new or upgraded residences. In addition to all these expenses, there has been a worrying trend in hiring more senior administrators with high salaries, and increasing executive compensation in line with that of CEOs of corporations. At Wilfred Laurier, the administration have admitted that there is one full time manager for every three faculty. They excuse this bloat by saying "this is typical for many Ontario Universities." Indeed.

And what are all these people doing? We don't know. We have no idea on the proportion of university money (50 per cent of which is taxpayer's money) spent on teaching, teaching support, administration and infrastructure maintenance.

It was notable in the recent layoffs announced by Wilfred Laurier University, 22 employees, all of whom could be described as first line support staff for students, were laid off. Senior management positions remained intact. In addition far fewer courses will be offered there in the coming year, which means that contract teachers will also lose all. or part of their livelihood. None of these measures can be seen as improving the student experience or the quality of teaching, and are a short-term expediency to a perceived imminent budgetary shortfall. No senior administration jobs have been touched in this blood-letting.

And that is at the heart of the matter. The universities collectively have stopped taking the long view of education, research and service. Things are now firmly focused on the next financial year, or the next assessment by an external agency, rather than the rather slow and stately way in which the institution used to evolve. And we need that long term view, to counterbalance the much shorter views of commercial enterprise, and even the lifetime of a particular provincial government. Even worse, they are not being held accountable by anyone.

Back to the University of Toronto, a major research institution ranking in the top 20 in the world, depending on which rankings you look at. It posted a $200 million budget surplus last year. It has research output which is superlative by international standards. But despite this, it hasn't given its graduate students a rise in their basic living stipend since 2008. The amount now stands at $15,000, substantially below what is considered the poverty line (over $23,000) for a single person in one of Canada's most expensive cities. And many of these students, in their twenties and thirties, are not single. They have partners and children to support.

Graduate students are one of the most important groups of people in the University, for two reasons. Firstly, they support teaching by marking, and running tutorials, laboratories and seminars (where they are referred to as Teaching Assistants  -- TAs) Secondly, they support research as part of their studies by doing a lot of the basic ground work necessary to carry out research.

A university which does not value the work done by its graduate students is a travesty of the institution it is meant to be. Graduate students work hard at their studies and at their teaching and research duties. To suggest that they should have to seek outside employment to supplement their meagre stipend is both ridiculous and incredibly short-sighted. It means that they have to devote hours to other work rather than to do the necessary work which the University needs to compete on a global level. It also means that they may further increase their student debt which they incurred getting through undergraduate studies. When these people come on the job market, hopefully they will find good jobs, but that ever present debt is going to weigh heavily and postpone major purchases, such as houses, vehicles and furniture. It may delay starting a family. This is a bad economic outcome for the province- our best educated people mired down in debt caused largely by institutional indifference.

"Indifference" was certainly the word which describes the University of Toronto negotiation tactics. No negotiation for 14 months, while the graduate students were without contract. Then after a strike mandate from an exasperated union, a sudden flurry of negotiation activity for a few days before a strike deadline, leading to negotiations going into the small hours. This is a depressingly monotonous repetition of negotiation tactics used by university administrations across the province. They must have all been reading the same books by U.S.-based business gurus. "Treat the employees with as much contempt as possible to keep them in their place." Hardly what academia is supposed to be about; discussion and collegiality are the traditional form of administration and governance.

The strike at York has some similarities, and an interesting development. The union representing the TAs (CUPE 3903) is asking for a tuition freeze for graduate students as part of that agreement. Otherwise the university is allowed by the provincial government to put up graduate tuition for Ontario students by 5 per cent. This is a smart move by the TAs, as otherwise any hard-won agreement on pay for teaching duties will be immediately offset by eye-watering rises in tuition. How this plays out could be of great significance as a precedent for other institutions.

So why can an Ontario University get away with this bad behaviour? Well, it's because of very weak provincial government oversight. Here's a quote from a letter sent me by my MPP, Madeline Meilleur:

"As you know, all publicly assisted universities in Ontario are legally autonomous institutions with full responsibility for both academic and administrative matters. The government has no authority to intervene in matters related to hiring and employment practices."

In other words, the principal stakeholder in Ontario universities, the provincial government, has had no oversight, despite contributing around 50 per cent of the money to run the university system. Belatedly, this will change once the Public Sector and MPP Accountability and Transparency Act 2014 comes into force. It has passed the Royal Assent but has not yet been enacted into law. Once it is, the Ontario Ombudsman will have power to investigate. I suspect that there will be many people asking the question," Why is our tax money going to the universities, while they pay many of their teaching employees very poorly, but keep raising tuition fees, claiming that 'the cost of teaching is rising'?"

At the very least, more accountability on exactly how much money is spent on teaching, and how that is broken down in terms of staff costs, support costs and infrastructure will be required. The universities are behaving autocratically, and need to be held accountable for their actions. The government should have no power over the hiring policy of individual staff members, to ensure that the university is free to employ people who may not be in favour with the ruling party. But this does not mean that the government should have no say in their general employment policies, particularly when it comes to contract labour.

I leave you with this thought: Many university presidents will be wooing potential alumni donors for generous gifts to their alma mater. If your alma mater has consigned you to poverty for several years and left you with a big debt, are you going to be inclined to give generously? I think not. So the short-termism of current university policy is eventually going to have some very unpleasant side effects on alumni donations.

A slightly earlier version of this article originally appeared in "Precarious Physicist" on Medium.com