MALLIKA MAKKAR/THE VARSITY

Dear undergraduates of the University of Toronto,

I understand your frustration with the strike and I’m not asking for your support (although very welcome) but just the opportunity to explain my position, which is shared with many grad students. Like yourselves, we are frustrated with the high cost of your tuition, especially since it is unclear where all your money goes since those who do more than 60 per cent of the teaching at U of T account for only 3.5 per cent of the budget.

Graduate school might seem like a great deal, because we don’t pay tuition and get $15,000 in funding. However, many grads including myself are paying tuition ($8000-$20,000 a year) and nearly 60 per cent of that is earned through work as TAs, research assistants (RAs), and course instructors (CIs). Yes, we are paid $42/hour for this, but this is part of the $15,000, so wage increases mean nothing when the funding remains unchanged.

You’ve heard that graduate students are living well below the poverty line and maybe thought: ‘why not just get a part time job?’ Most students do take on extra TA, RA, and CI work to pay the bills. However, that’s not an option in every department and those who do undertake extra work often take longer to complete their degrees. We love our experiences teaching undergrads, but we are also students. We take graduate courses but at the end of the day when we are finished coursework and teaching, we conduct research from which the university benefits in prestige and grant money. Since this work continues all year round, it is not just a full-time job it’s a lifestyle; we work all day, making it impossible to take on a job outside of this lifestyle. If you add up all the hours we devote to our graduate work and divide it by the $15,000, it works out to just a few dollars an hour.

I understand that you may not be sympathetic with our position, but I hope you can see that we are not striking to hurt you; we are fighting so that we can provide you with better education – right now most of our hours are devoted to marking but you deserve more of our time with smaller tutorials, office hours, and individual feedback. We would love to provide that to our students, but the university doesn’t see it as enough of a priority to pay for it. Finally, some of you may one day apply to graduate school and what I hope most of all is that what we achieve today will benefit you in the future.

Thank you and hope to see you in class again soon!

— Nicole Daniel, PhD student, Course Instructor and Teaching Assistant at the University of Toronto

I’m a PhD student in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto. I am the President of the computer science graduate student body. I am a former course instructor, run TA training for our department, and take extra TAships because I love teaching undergraduates, so much so it’s what I want to do after I graduate. I am also on strike. Please, let me explain why.

When I converse with graduate students from other departments, I have to apologize for our relative embarrassment of riches. Our minimum PhD stipend is $19, 300 (plus tuition), far higher than many of our peers’ $15, 000; there are more TA and instructor positions than we can fill, yet we are only required to perform 108 hours, again less than in many other departments. Our teaching conditions are excellent, thanks to a series of proactive and responsive undergraduate chairs. Many of us create successful start-ups, such as Granata Decision Systems, DNNResearch, and Sciencescape. We have many opportunities for industry internships, and after graduation, our employment prospects are excellent, both in industry, where companies like Google and Facebook snap us up, and in academia, as computer science becomes increasingly prominent. Ultimately, many of the core issues in this round of bargaining aren’t of immediate concern to graduate students in our department.

So why would I, and many of my computer science peers, even consider going on strike? I could say solidarity, but that’s a cheap answer. If that was all, the level of support from both the undergraduate and graduate TAs in our department would be much lower. The unfortunate truth is that we are a frustrated and dispirited bunch; despite the successes, the situation in the department is far from rosy. Our research professor complement is 25 per cent smaller than it was 10 years ago. A long-term hiring freeze in our department has recently been lifted, but we’ve continued to face challenges in hiring new professors, as well as losing professors to places like Google, Princeton, and MIT. Our professors are beleaguered and strained, trying to teach more students, handle more administration, start more initiatives, and still produce world-class research with ever-decreasing levels of support.

We have also faced continued difficulty in attracting the best graduate student recruits. As new computer science departments pop up around the world, and existing departments not only expand but diversify and reinvent themselves, we have found ourselves hamstrung by provincial limits on international student enrolment as well as devastating cuts to NSERC Discovery Grants. Consequently, while our student stipends are relatively generous at U of T, they have fallen far behind many of our American competitors. In an extraordinarily expensive city, were not financially competitive.

For many of our graduate students, the reality on the ground is quite bleak. Our stipends are guaranteed for only 5 years, when our median time for an MSc and a PhD is 7 years. This means many of our graduate students are not only unfunded for 2 years, but are also responsible for several years’ worth of tuition: $8, 426/year for domestic students and a whopping $20, 579/year for international students. This is an extraordinary burden; I have compatriots who have been dead broke, surviving on PB&J and instant ramen, while simultaneously engaging in top-tier research. Still others work upwards of 6 TAships at a time — 390 hours a term — to make ends meet, further extending their PhDs and driving up their tuition obligations. These are young adults trying to start their careers, many of whom are also starting their families and new lives in Toronto, and to see their struggles can be gut-wrenching.

Unfortunately caught in the middle of this labour dispute, our undergraduate students are also in an unfair situation. They pay tuition of over $10, 000, almost double what other Faculty of Arts and Science students pay, if they manage to hurdle enrolment caps that are driving the minimum admission grade ever upwards. Those extra fees are not redirected back to the department, but are instead distributed throughout the Faculty. So in return, undergraduates work on beat-up lab computers that are, on average, 5 years old. They are squeezed out of required 2nd-year courses because we don’t have room for them. They are squeezed into 4th-year courses with hundreds of students because we can’t find instructors to run more sections. They miss out on courses we cannot offer, because we have no professors to teach them. With the department struggling to find the capacity to meet their demand, their class sizes are ballooning and, ironically, their TA support has been slashed to less than 80 per cent of what their predecessors received 5 years ago.

This is the state of affairs at one of U of T’s globally acclaimed departments. Amazing achievements continue — the launch of a new start-up incubator, creation of massively open online courses, new industry partnerships, graduates who go on to prestigious positions in industry and academia, dynamic interdisciplinary research — but they occur almost in spite of the myriad constraints placed upon the department.

This is not to place all blame for the department’s ills on others, but shrinking or stagnant levels of support from the university, the provincial government, and the federal government, along with increased demand for and competitiveness in computer science, have combined to put the Department of Computer Science in a distressed state, and its world-class status at risk. More broadly, while I cannot speak with authority on the situation in other departments, I am pessimistic given all the advantages my department should have.

So why go on strike? I am aware that CUPE 3902’s mandate does not encompass all these issues. I harbour no illusions that we can solve these problems through collective labour action. I know that my department will still have struggles long after I have departed. For me, this strike, just as it isn’t really about improving my personal circumstances, isn’t really about saving my department either. But it is a first step. This strike is speaking out about important issues. It’s about using what little leverage I have to rectify what few injustices I can. It’s about showing everybody what it means to make a stand of solidarity and of principle. Despite the callous and casual disregard the university administration shows us – in a “let them eat cake” moment, the university rejected our demands for better conditions because we are both full-time students and part-time employees – I still believe that it can do better, that it can be better, even if I have to force the issue. In my hopes, this strike is not an end, but a beginning.

All I can ask of the undergraduate students is to have patience, to take a little bit of time to understand our situation, and to give a little effort in becoming engaged. This cannot be the only time you will encounter crisis and injustice in your lives, and the act of responding itself is more important than whose side you take. You are not powerless, you are not tokens or chips, and you are not victims. This is your future, one way or another; don’t just let it happen to you without you.

—Brian Law, PhD student, President of the Computer Science Student’s Graduate Body

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