TA compensation, the argument for a competitive institution

We can’t be a world-class university without paying top dollar for world-class talent
Picketers outside Robarts Library. JENNIFER SU/THE VARSITY
Picketers outside Robarts Library. JENNIFER SU/THE VARSITY

Citations matter. They force you to prove that you’re not just making things up. I know this because U of T threatens to expel me if I don’t cite properly every time I start a new class.

So it’s a bit hypocritical for our university to not provide any sources for all the numbers they’re spouting regarding the TA strike.

For example, provost Cheryl Regehr maintains that graduate student funding has increased to an average of $35,000 per year. This is — to use U of T’s own language on academic honesty — a misrepresentation of facts.

That $35,000 includes tuition, which has been rising steadily while the minimum take home pay of graduate students has remained at $15,000. It’s the equivalent of saying: I’ll pay you $35,000 except I’m going to keep $20,000.

In the most recent data from 2011–2012, U of T offered 79 doctoral-stream graduate programs. Forty-two of the master’s programs and 53 of the PhD programs offered a minimum funding package of $15,000. It would be easy to manipulate this data to represent a specific conclusion.

For example, I could point out that 14 of the master’s programs offered $0. Alternately, I could emphasize that these are minimum benchmarks and some students — such as those in the Faculty of Medicine — can get $19,000 a year in funding. $19,000 is a lot better than $15,000, but it’s still $307 below the poverty line in Toronto. The truth defies simplicity but it does require facts.

There are reasonable disagreements to be had about the nuances of graduate funding. Should contract faculty’s health insurance cover their family members in the same way that teaching assistant’s insurance does? How does paying criminology master’s students $0 and their counterparts in the PhD program $15,000 affect the research output or the international competitiveness of that department? Is that the industry standard?

However, we can’t have these conversations if U of T keeps fudging the numbers. U of T regularly boasts about how well it’s doing in international rankings.  This year we were ranked twentieth in the world by the Times Higher Education Ranking. So it’s remarkably disingenuous for U of T to claim that they provide: “16% more funding per student than comparable Canadian research universities.”

Comparing us with the University of British Columbia (ranked 32) or McGill  University (ranked 39) makes sense. But that number also includes McMaster, which is ranked fourth in Canada and ninety-fourth in the world. It further includes Western, Waterloo, Queen’s, Laval, Calgary, Dalhousie, and Manitoba none of which even make the top 200 globally.

We should be talking about how U of T competes with similarly ranked schools. For example, Cornell University is nineteenth in the world. They pay their teaching assistants $24,104 a year.

U of T can’t be a world-class university if it’s not willing to pay top dollar for world-class talent. U of T knows this. Tuition has been skyrocketing for years as U of T tries to compete with other schools to attract the best professors. Yet graduate students do the majority of the research that U of T is so proud of. If the logic of high salary equals great talent applies for faculty there’s no reason why it shouldn’t apply for graduate students.

U of T claims that they will go back to the bargaining table once the provincial mediator tells them to. Legally, there is nothing stopping U of T from returning to the bargaining table.

We’ve had a week of lies and distortions from the administration. If they’re hoping undergraduates will be gullible enough to swallow another week of made up numbers — and that the media and the rest of Canada won’t see the utter contempt they’re treating their students with — they’re going to be disappointed. 

Zane Schwartz is a fourth-year history student who contributes to The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s. He was The Varsity’s news editor last year. His column appears bi-weekly.

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