Because I am psychologically incapable of saying no to anything, I found myself representing my fellow Medieval Studies TAs on the Stewards’ Council for CUPE local 3902 for a brief stint in 2006-2007. I’ll admit, it was not a job for which I was particularly well suited, and I believe I passed the proverbial baton to the first willing taker to come along. But the experience did give me some insight into the issues faced by those at the bottom of the university hierarchy — graduate students.
Years later, and I am happily outside of the academic bubble. Yet I find myself wishing that I could once again put on my union rep hat and march in solidarity with the TAs who are currently on strike at the University of Toronto. I believe in what they are doing. Many of them are my personal friends, and I would be out on the picket line with them if I hadn’t jumped the academic ship some years ago.
I figure the least I can do is to try to give some clarity to the handful of people reading this blog about some of the issues facing not just the TAs at the U of T and the contract faculty at York (who are also on strike) … but the issues facing higher education as whole, of which these current disputes are but a symptom.
For one thing, the graduate student funding question is far more complicated than most media coverage leads readers to believe. I was impressed when I read articles in both the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail. As far as I could tell, neither completely reflected the reality of the funding situation for graduate students at the U of T. Obviously, I am no expert on the subject of labour relations between university administrators and teaching assistants. I can only speak from my experience as a graduate student within the last decade. But the issue seems to be this: PhD students at the U of T are offered a minimum funding package of tuition + $15,000 a year for 5 years. Of that $15K a portion (approximately $6K) is pure scholarship, while approximately $9K can come from research assistantships, teaching assistantships, etc. University administrators have made much over a proposed hourly wage increase for TAs as part of their initial offer to the union. The problem is, without a corresponding offer on the amount of scholarship that makes up the funding package, that hourly wage increase is effectively meaningless (and will actually result in saving the university money!).
I have seen any number of comments online condemning the U of T graduate students for “expecting to be paid to go to school” and urging PhD candidates to work part-time off campus to supplement their income. Such attitudes, however, betray a lack of understanding of how this level of higher education operates. The funding packages that universities (not just the U of T but all universities) offer their graduate students are an investment in the next generation of academic scholars. In addition to finishing their degrees (within a 5-year funding window), PhD candidates are expected to publish, present at conferences, and engage in any number of professional development activities all of which not only enhance the CV of the particular candidate, but enhance the reputation of the university. Offering promising candidates a (livable!) funding package allows them to engage in those necessary aspects of scholarly development. As this computer science student has pointed out — U of T cannot hope to maintain its reputation as a top university if it loses its competitive edge in recruiting the best candidates.
This brings me to the heart of the matter — the current strike by the U of T teaching assistants is about so much more than this crop of graduate students at this university bargaining for a living wage. This is about a growing system of inequality throughout higher education. Fourth-year undergraduate Zane Schwartz sums it up:
“What’s happening at U of T and York is symptomatic of a larger problem across Canada. Underpaid part-time staff teach a majority ofundergraduates in Canada. For example, at U of T contract faculty and teaching assistants do 60 per cent of the teaching but make up 3.5 per cent of the budget. This is not an isolated problem. According to one study, the number of contract faculty in Ontario increased 87 per cent in between 2000 and 2014.
While contract faculty and teaching assistants are doing more of the teaching nationwide, their salaries and job security have not changed. They have no job security. Contract faculty do not enjoy academic freedom protections. No matter how hard working someone is, if they’re worried about feeding their families they’re going to be distracted in the classroom.”
In recent decades, but especially since the recession of 2008, the proportion of contingent faculty and sessional lecturers has ballooned in proportion to full-time, tenured professors. As tuition prices skyrocket, undergraduates are increasingly taught by contract faculty who may not even be sure they are working from term to term, or who are teaching beyond a full course load while barely making enough to live on — not to mention have time to hunt for jobs or engage in necessary scholarly publications. Think of it in these terms — how much of your own university education was made memorable not because of the content you were learning, but the teachers who made it memorable or who took the time to build a relationship outside of the classroom? Now, imagine students today with TAs and course instructors unable to give their courses the most perfunctory personal investment?
I gave up my professional academic ambitions. But I have not given up my passionate commitment to the ideals of higher education. When Amanda goes to university, I want to think that her tuition dollars are going to pay a fair wage to faculty given the capacity to be fully engaged scholars and teachers — not lining the pockets of university administrators! Furthermore, I want to think we live in a society that values learning and education for their own sake. We should want our students to receive the best education possible — and that means a investing in our scholars and teachers.
Finally, as a person of faith, I am called to stress that the income disparity in the university system is but one example of the growing income inequality all around us. As one commentator has put it, the U of T has become the Wal-Mart of higher education in terms of how its employees are treated. And so, I have no choice but to stand in solidarity with my friends on the picket line.