SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

The provincial government has introduced and passed multiple controversial bills this past year that will affect teaching assistants (TAs) at U of T. Notably, changes to tuition and financial aid structuring and a proposed salary increase cap are a cause for concern. 

TAs at U of T are upper-year undergraduate or graduate students who lead tutorials, grade assignments, and supervise labs. All are unionized under the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Local 3902. These positions are integral to university classes, and the coming changes have left some with concerns about the long-term impact of the Ford government’s policies.

Tuition and financial aid changes

The Ford government slashed domestic tuition by 10 per cent for all colleges and universities across Ontario for the 2019–2020 academic year — U of T is expected to have an $88 million reduction in revenue compared to the original projections. While TA salaries and hours will likely not be impacted since union agreements guarantee a set of conditions, there is a growing worry about job availability. 

Individual departments at the university will be the ones to determine budgeting decisions, including job postings, based on their priorities.

Because of the inherent precarious nature of TAships, many workers choose to juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet. In an interview with The Varsity, Jess Taylor, Chair of CUPE 3902, said that “those additional contracts that people kind of need to be able to afford to live [are] what I’m worried about. I’m worried that there will just be fewer jobs posted as departments start to feel the pinch.” 

Further financial strains will be placed on other TAs due to recent changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program. While in previous years independent students, who are eligible for more funding, were defined as those who were out of high school for four or more years, the new guidelines increased the time to six years. This means that a master’s student who entered university right after finishing high school is still considered dependent on their family’s finances. Furthermore, the adjustment of the grant-to-loan ratio will mean that students will receive fewer grants than before.

When asked about possible support avenues for graduate students, Heather Boon, Vice-Provost Faculty & Academic Life, noted that the university “remain[s] committed” to assisting students. U of T plans to spend $247 million on student aid for this academic year, in part thanks to the Boundless campaign, and is also offering financial advising and short-term financial assistance specifically for graduate students.

Public-sector salary increase cap

The provincial government is on track to pass its contentious Bill 124, or the Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act. The bill, first introduced this past June, would place a one per cent cap on pay raises and inclusive benefits for public sector employees across Ontario, TAs included. 

According to Kendall Smith, a representative from the Treasury Board Secretariat of Ontario, the bill is meant to “manage compensation growth in a way that allows for reasonable wage increases while also respecting taxpayers and the services they rely upon.”

Taylor expressed her concern about the bill passing, noting that it would cause employees to lose money over time since the cap is lower than the usual rate of inflation. 

The collective agreement of Unit 1 of CUPE, which TAs fall under, is set to expire at the end of 2020. If passed, the bill will apply to any new agreement.

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