TROY LAWRENCE/THE VARSITY

Forbes recently ranked U of T as the second-best employer in Canada, “a mere fraction of a point” short of Google. One year ago, U of T was ranked 63rd. What’s changed between then and now to justify the 61-spot jump? And do the experiences of employees at U of T measure up?

Beyond the rankings

U of T employs over 20,000 people across all three campuses, including groundskeepers, graphic designers, and financial service analysts with the University of Toronto Asset Management corporation, and library technicians who support the library facilities that students and researchers rely on.

The next highest-ranked Canadian postsecondary institution in Forbes’ employee satisfaction list is the fifth-place Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, followed by Montréal’s Concordia University in eighth place.

But Forbes seems to be inconsistent in how it rates universities, since U of T is not the only workplace to have made big jumps. In 2017, Queen’s University took home the number one spot, yet it is now ranked well below U of T as the 17th best employer in Canada. The University of Guelph was sixth in 2016, but now finds itself 61st.

This result may be due to the methodology employed: Forbes surveyed 8,000 Canadians working at companies with over 500 employees across the nation. There seems to be no guarantee of proportional distribution across companies, hence the dramatic shift in U of T’s position might be due to an underrepresentation of the university’s employees last year, or an overabundance of responses this year.

In the end, the real stakeholders are flesh-and-blood employees, and it’s the policies that U of T has in place that truly determine how it compares as an employer. While there is ambiguity about Forbes’ data collection methods, its rankings provide a good opportunity to look at what U of T does for its tens of thousands of employees.

Tuition waivers

Kelly Hannah-Moffat, Vice-President Human Resources and Equity (HR&E) believes that U of T’s jump in the rankings is partly due to Forbes having a better understanding of the university’s employment standards. “They got a more fulsome understanding of all of the things going on, and our… continuous efforts to improve, and to ensure that we have meaningful benefits, meaningful programs, flexible work — all of the things that we’re doing every single year to make sure that we’re a good inclusive environment to work in.”

Benefits make up a large part of what U of T offers its employees. Chief among these is the university’s tuition waiver scheme, which allows full-time staff to take courses at the undergraduate and master’s level on the university’s dime.

U of T is not the only university to offer such a scheme, but its details are generous compared to peer institutions in Canada. Staff can take up to three fall or winter undergraduate courses, compared to staff at the University of Waterloo, for example, who can take a maximum of two courses using tuition waivers.

Tuition waivers can also be applied to dependents of the staff. According to the tuition waiver request form for dependents, the proportion of tuition exempted depends on “the staff member employment date; percentage of employment; and the eligibility of the program of study.” Kazi Arif, a University College Food Services employee since 2005, has taken advantage of this support: his son completed a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Engineering at UTSG through a tuition waiver. Arif received the full amount of his son’s tuition.

Pension plan

Speaking to job benefits more broadly, Arif said, “U of T has a good pension plan. All other facilities are better than any other job.”

Retirement packages differ by role, but for Professional & Managerial Staff, any employee with at least 15 years of service can receive a reduced workload in the year leading up to their retirement, while their pensions accrue at full-time rates.

“[The retirement scheme] allows us to have knowledge transferred with the employee who is departing and with somebody else who might be coming into the unit,” said Hannah-Moffat.

Pension amounts also differ by role. The precise amount is a function of the number of years of service, the annual average of the highest 36 months of salaried work, and a maximum pension amount set by the government, currently held at $57,400.

Pensions increase annually to account for inflation. For Professional & Managerial Staff who have worked at U of T for a year and who are over 35, enrolment in the pension plan is mandatory.

The pension plan is conferrable onto an employee’s spouse and dependents in the event of their death.

At the other end of the employee spectrum are people like Sarah Stiller, a library technician at Kelly Library. This is her first full-time job since she graduated from Seneca College. At this stage in her career, she has relatively few complaints about working at U of T; the hours and pay are good, and while retiring at U of T isn’t an ambition, she said that the health plan is good for her needs.

Positive feedback from different age groups of employees is a sign of a healthy workplace that delivers on the various needs of its staff, such as childcare and professional development. But with thousands of employees distributed across three campuses and 21 different bargaining units representing them, gleaning an overall pattern of employee satisfaction at U of T just isn’t possible without access to comprehensive survey data.

Surveys and equity in the workplace

HR&E conducts a number of surveys with faculty and staff to gain a picture of the U of T workplace environment. In 2014, the Speaking Up survey went out to faculty, staff, and librarians. The results went on to inform specific workplace issues that the university is looking to improve on — what HR&E calls its “areas of focus,” which include equity and diversity.

According to Hannah-Moffat, the university makes a big commitment toward being a diverse and inclusive workplace. “Excellence is diversity and diversity is excellence. The two are just not separable.”

There is particular stress placed on the representation of Black and Indigenous employees in the university. The latest HR&E Employment Equity Report, released in November, is an anonymized summation of a voluntary questionnaire that had been sent to all active employees. This year, 81 per cent, or 8,897 employees, responded.

Only two per cent of faculty and librarians and six per cent of staff self-identified as Black, and only one per cent each of faculty and librarians and staff self-identified as Indigenous. Overall, 19 per cent of faculty and librarians and 33 per cent of staff indicated that they were people of colour.

In response to this survey as well as a call to action from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, the university has committed $2.5 million to the hiring of 20 new staff and faculty members each who come from Indigenous backgrounds. Strategic recruitment practices by which the university actively reaches out to communities in search of excellent candidates are ongoing, according to Hannah-Moffat.

The Varsity has learned that the Office of Sandy Welsh, Vice-Provost Students, is currently conducting a Workplace Culture and Professional Development Review of the Division of Student Life at UTSG, following an external review of the division last year. Student Life incorporates services such as Academic Services, Hart House, and Health & Wellness. In a memo describing the review, Welsh wrote that the survey was motivated by the university’s “collective desire to foster an inclusive and diverse working environment.” It is being conducted by Toronto-based law firm Rubin Thomlinson LLP.

Confidential interviews will occur throughout March as part of the survey.

U of T did not respond to questions about whether the survey results would be made publicly available. However, in line with the university’s commitment to promoting diversity and equity, the survey results should be made available to Student Life employees, if not to the general public.

Employees have the right to know what their peers say about their working environments. Students should also be informed about the working conditions of their university’s employees. After all, Welsh said that these employees’ “passion for [their] work and enriching the student experience is unmistakable.”

Interview requests with Campus Police constables were denied by the university.

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