As many expected they would, the labour negotiations between teaching assistants and the university went right down to the wire. A tentative deal was reached Friday, but CUPE Local 3902 Unit 1 members voted not to ratify the proposed agreement. Before worries and speculation about specific strike outcomes begin to heat up, it is worth looking at the big picture and the overarching issues that the strike presents for the university community as a whole.
The strike highlights the fundamental issues in university teaching. These are worth considering because, this week, we can cross the picket line to tacitly support the university’s poor teaching practices and to receive a fraction of the education we paid for.
It says a lot that U of T allowed labour negotiations to fail, and was willing to sacrifice its students in the process. That 60 per cent of our teaching capacity is so precariously employed that they would strike is also startling. This is a major issue across Canadian post-secondary institutions, which speaks to the scope of the problem.
This strike shows students that we are paying more in tuition every year and not receiving any teaching improvements in return. Comments over the last few months from unions representing both TAs and sessional lecturers have revealed the extent of the problem.
They have significantly less time to grade papers, their research and teaching duties often conflict, and they are paid less than they need to live. Sessional lecturers are so tenuously employed that they need to lecture in the least risky way possible in order to ensure that they can hope to continue teaching the next term. These two groups make up the majority of U of T’s teaching capacity, but receive a piddling minority of university spending.
While professors are not openly complaining, they too are often overworked and torn between too many commitments. Only one of these three groups will be on strike next week, but all can be heard complaining that they are unable to connect with, and teach, students optimally.
Of course, difficult budget balancing acts exist behind the scenes that cannot be neglected. However, U of T should not put our semester on the line because they refuse to pay the rising price of the teaching that we already paid for with our tuition.
There is also no reason why struggling students should have to pay to be taught largely by other struggling students. The problem goes beyond issues of pay and job security, and extends to the very nature of university teaching itself.
While U of T’s role as a research institution is fundamentally important to the university’s prestige, international rankings, and funding, priorities need to be balanced to support teaching as well.
Students, and even taxpayers, are paying primarily to train human capital, not for the long-run returns on research. By failing to improve learning progressively, the university is threatening to undermine the protection it has to research freely, regardless of its importance to the tax payer.
Christian Medeiros is a third-year student at Trinity College specializing in international relations.