The Heart of the Matter

At the heart of the current college negotiations, I posit, is the chronic and continued underfunding of postsecondary education (especially college education) in the province of Ontario. 

Alas, we are in negotiations with a management who would prefer to call their employees greedy than to tell their employers that more funding is needed.  And much of the battle that the union has been waging concerns a management that strives again and again to justify and perpetuate the continued underfunding of Ontario’s college system — a task for which they are hired and, ultimately, rewarded.  Time and again, college administrators could use these negotiations as a means of communicating to the province the need for adequate funding; time and again, college management denies policies that have been jointly agreed-upon, saying “The money just isn’t there”. 

And perhaps it isn’t.  Because adminstrators don’t demand it, even when they could legitimately do so, whether on the basis of faculty demands, the recommendations of bipartisan task forces, or their own contractual obligations.  Instead, the colleges continually admit increased numbers of students and offer ever-broader programs of study, while not insisting upon proportionally-increased funding to accommodate them.

And in the end, education gets weakened: Less interaction between faculty and students.   Crowded classrooms.  Increased reliance on publishers’ PowerPoint presentations.  Insufficient time to evaluate students’ work in a manner that might actually help them improve their skills.

And in the end, the colleges advertise the excellence of the education that they provide, while actively taking measures that effectively undermine quality.

And in the end, it ends up on the backs of students — in the form of increased tuition — and on the backs of the professors in practically every other way.  More part-time faculty.  Modified Workload Arrangements to begin the elimination of workload protections.  Hiring freezes.  Imposed Terms and Conditions.  Every one of these things (I believe) is an effect of underfunding; every one of them magnifies the college management’s power at the expense of the professors’.

A correspondent from Southwestern Ontario pointed me to chapter 5 of Colleges Ontario’s 2009 Environmental Scan.  A quick look at that illustrates some changes in the colleges’ fiscal life in the last 20 years.  And, as Nixon’s “Checkers” speech illustrated, a financial history tells a much broader story. 

Figure 4 indicates that full-time enrollment has increased 21% since  1993, while grants per student have reduced by 5%.  Figure 6 shows that colleges receive $4,000 less per student than high schools, and over $2,000 less than universities (who also have higher tuition rates).

So in the midst of the boom in enrollment, colleges receive less funding than ever.  “In real terms”, we are told on pp. 52-3, “college revenues are still significantly lower than they were in the late 1980s and the early 1990s”.  Later, we are told:

When revenues from operating grants and tuition fees are considered together, per student funding in Ontario in 2007-08 stood at $8,159, the lowest amongst the provinces. . . [and] 43 per cent lower than that in Saskatchewan. . . .

College revenues are still lower than in the early ’90s?  (Oh — right.  Harris.)  Figure 7 tells us what the colleges managed to cut, to deal with this loss.  Since 1993:

  • The number of full-time students enrolled increased 15%
  • The number of full-time staff decreased 7%

How?  Let’s break it down:

  • The number of support staff in 2007 was unchanged from that of 1993
  • The number of administrative staff in 2007 was unchanged from that of 1993
  • The number of academic staff in 2007 was 15% less than in 1993

In the last 20 years, the number of full-time students enrolled has increased 15%; the number of full-time faculty employed has decreased 15% — In 2007-8, Ontario’s colleges employed 7,002 full-time staff and 11,599 part-time staff.

But here’s the point that I want to make: In 1999, adminstrative, support, and academic hiring were all anywhere from 15%-25% below their 1993 levels.  Meaning that, in the last 20 years, we have seen the number of support staff increase by 15% and the number of adminstrators increase by 25%.  In the last 20 years, managers have been able to create jobs for managers.  Managers have found money in the system for more management

So when Dr. Rachael Donovan, chair of the college’s bargaining team, claims…

“A strike mandate hasn’t made OPSEU’s positions any more affordable. It hasn’t given the colleges any more money” (Jan.13)

She is right… and wrong.  She may be right that the money isn’t there; she’s wrong because she — like the bargaining team she chairs — views the lack of funding as a management challenge in resource allocation (a challenge that moreover justifies management’s own increased numbers and salaries), rather than as a pressing threat to the quality of Ontario’s college education. 

She is wrong because she does not go on the record demanding to know why this is the case.  And so far, neither have we.

Neither the college’s bargaining team nor the union’s, I think, has ever during this round of negotiations come out and said the obvious: Our system is underfunded.  The college management acts as if the underfunding is a law of nature, since they are hired to perpetuate it and rationalize its deleterious effects.  The union (and, at times, this blog) acts as if the problem isn’t an underfunded system, but rather that “our” share is going unfairly to “other” priorities, like new buildings, adminstrators, support staff, advertising campaigns, international campuses and partnerships, legal teams, online environments, severance packages and performance bonuses.

But it’s insufficient for us to carp about each other’s pieces of the pie, just as it’s dangerous for an educational system to make academic decisions based on fiscal criteria.

“Threatening to go on strike won’t move the two sides closer, it doesn’t change the economic realities”, Dr. Donovan said, as if economic realities were immutable laws of physics.  As if the fact that Ontario’s postsecondary system has the lowest per-capita funding of any province was a necessary, a priori fact.

Today, professors will decide whether to bow to the “realities” of underfunding, or to try to create pressure from below to change that reality.  If we vote to accept that offer, we will permit the current system to continue unabated (or even for its flaws to become exacerbated) and we will see some of the effects that are listed here.  We will do nothing to break the Ministry’s addiction to underfunded budgets, nor the Ontario college system’s consequent addictions to casual labour, top-down managerial systems, and increased class sizes.   On the contrary, we will enable and accommodate those addictions. 

But when I permit myself to hope, here is my hope: That my managers (who really have been very good to me, personally, and whom I credit with good motives) and my college’s executives join together with the faculty.  That we come to some mutual recognition that excellence is something more than a marketing term: It concerns the increased potential of the students who turn to us for that purpose.  It’s a process that requires nurturing and careful attention, which all college employees should be encouraged and enabled to provide, rather than being prevented from providing because of increased workload or the vagaries of unstable jobs.

I hope that we can collectively turn to our elected representatives and our fellow citizens, and say, “Here’s what we need.  And we need it because the students need it.   And the province needs it.”

But (in my opinion) we will all only be able to present a united voice to the province about the real needs affecting the system — and the system’s role in addressing the needs of the province — if professors first stand together and insist upon being treated as colleagues, experts, and equal partners within that system.

Today is one opportunity for us to do that.  But so is tomorrow.

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