University of Toronto teaching assistants (TAs) already find themselves stretched thin, but this may worsen if Bill 124, Premier Doug Ford’s new policy, comes into force.

Known as the Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act, Bill 124 would cap increases in public sector salaries and compensation by one per cent a year for all benefits of monetary value. This includes wages, health care insurance, child care support, and more, all without accounting for the current inflation rate of nearly two per cent.

Since TAs work for publicly-funded institutions, this would directly affect them. The Varsity interviewed three current TAs working for U of T to see what they thought about these policy changes and implications.

How Bill 124 will affect tutorial rooms

Jasmine Chorley Foster is a second-year PhD student in the Department of Political Science. She is also a member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), where she is a representative for her department, speaking on behalf of TAs, course instructors, and other workers, usually PhD or Master’s students.

When asked about the trade-off between the Ford government’s claim that Bill 124 will save the public millions and the loss of potential benefits for employees in the public sector, Foster said that it isn’t a fair exchange.

“Why cut nurses’ wages, but not doctors’?” she said. “It’s not neutral cost-cutting, otherwise why would they discriminate?”

Beyond merely salaries, Foster also sees this bill as a barrier to union rights and negotiations.

“The other thing about Bill 124 is that it allows the government to interfere in collective bargaining, so even if the employer and the workers came to an agreement, the government could still intervene,” she said. “Even in a normal round of bargaining, we would have been able to come to an agreement with the university, but we will now be forced to take much less [of our demands] because of the legislation.”

Two major issues CUPE members are concerned with are student finances and living conditions.

“Everyone is facing financial constraints,” Foster said. “No one is shy about this — like how expensive rent is in Toronto — considering how little money we earn.”

According to Statistics Canada, in 2017, the low income cut-off in Toronto was defined as a salary of $25,338 per person, before tax. Though TA salaries differ by department, the base amount offered by the Faculty of Arts & Science is $17,500. In their funding packages, some TAs also receive tuition and fees. For example, certain graduate students in the Faculty of Arts & Science may receive $8,487. With these factored in, the total amount they are paid is $25,987 per year.

One way to afford life in such an expensive city is for TAs to acquire more TA positions, but this means taking longer to complete their thesis. Some graduate students end up taking seven or more years to get their degree.

Foster sees a future with Bill 124 as bleak. She believes it will eventually become a matter of what to cut, due to reduced funding. All sorts of support services, such as health insurance, child care, and more will be on the front lines.

As a parting thought, Foster noted that this fight extends beyond TAs.

“The biggest thing I want for the readership to understand is that this all will affect everyone at U of T,” she said. “[If TAs] are overworked, then we have less time to provide feedback, or give extra help, or meet outside of office hours […] That obviously affects how [students] are in tutorials [and] the quality of their work.

“All these things go together.”

“I could not even get a restaurant job”

Nonetheless, not all experiences are created equal. An international student at U of T, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of professional retribution, told The Varsity about her time as a PhD student in social sciences.

In her department, funding stops at the end of fourth year, and she has just started her fifth.

“TA-ships are my main [source of] income,” she said.

She went from working 300 hours in her fourth year, to 270 hours as a TA and 100 hours as a research assistant during her fifth.

She also voiced concerns about the difficulty of the process to become a permanent resident. She said that international students can be in precarious situations, citing the high costs, which can total to roughly $1,000 or more, and the lengthy procedure, which guarantees no expedient outcome.

“Very few people [apply for permanent residency] right away,” she said. “Some friends of mine needed to ask relatives and friends for money so that they could gather enough to apply.”

The question of financial stability doesn’t just impact her university life. Without a high enough salary, the implications could affect her living situation throughout her time at U of T.

“When I applied to U of T family housing, they [asked] to see financial records. So besides your TA income, they want to see your savings, to get evidence that you can pay rent for the next few years,” she said.

She considers herself lucky that she has the option to borrow from her parents.

“There are people in my department who don’t have such a resource. As an international student, my work permit only allows me to work on campus, so I could not even get a restaurant job,” she said.

However, the magnitude of her stress isn’t limited to her.

“The financial stress you have also affects your family. If you have to borrow money from your parents, they won’t refuse if they have the capacity, but that brings an extra burden to the family,” she said.

The stress over making ends meet, while balancing a heavy course load is an untenable situation that she acknowledges can prime students for mental health issues.

“The financial pressure that comes from the PhD program is interconnected with the kind of pressure that a foreign student faces if they cannot get [permanent residency]. If they don’t have the funds to finish, they may be forced out of the country. The whole education and immigration system creates this sense of precarity for students,” she said.

“I think there are mental health implications to this. Even from the first year, you start thinking of whether you can finish in time, before the funding runs out.”

To her, the problem is “We have all these unrealistic benchmarks in my department. They send emails on a regular basis, telling you that you have failed to reach these benchmarks, so you are reminded all the time that you are basically a failure. And then you are asked why you take on these extra jobs since you need to focus on your studies, but you need to take them on because you don’t get enough funding [so] that you can focus on your PhD research.”

“You are caught in this dilemma.”

Thoughts on the future

Some students are fortunate to have won major external scholarships, such as James ‘Billy’ Johnson, a fifth-year PhD candidate in the Department of English. However, even with substantial university funding and support, he understands that many people’s financial situations are still dubious.

“I know from friends that it can be a real struggle, especially to those who entered grad school with substantial debt from student loans from their undergrads,” Johnson said. “None are incurring more debt, but those who did not get an external scholarship certainly had to be more frugal just to survive.”

A significant concern to Johnson is the skyrocketing living costs.

An article published in EEB Quarterly stated that on average, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology students on a yearly income of $19,500 spend 61 per cent of their yearly income on rent, given that rent is $992.50 per month. This figure is double what is considered affordable.

“To hear that we are spending upward of 60 per cent is shocking to me, but [also] not shocking. Even with substantial funding, my biggest cost was rent,” Johnson said. “I found out that my apartment was $200 more [than before] just within a six month period.”

Nearing the end of his time as a PhD candidate, Johnson is thinking of the future. It’s difficult to save up any substantial amount of money during a degree that can take six years or so to complete, in addition to the rising costs of living in Toronto.

TA positions are a significant source of income for students who are limited by their course load, their immigration status, or other factors preventing them from securing another job. The threat that Bill 124 poses is to these students’ livelihoods.

“I don’t think there’s any genuine care for future generations, especially since the funding cuts increase class sizes [with] cuts to the number of teachers,” Johnson said. “Ford talks about creating ‘sustainable’ funding structures for future generations. I [find] that laughable.”