End crass exploitation in higher education

One has to make a deliberate effort not to use cruder language to describe and condemn the crassly commercial exploitation of short-term, temporary and contract teaching personnel by our country’s universities and colleges.

To make matters worse, our undergraduate students are also suffering the direct consequences of this ruthless, obscene and vulgar commercialization of post-secondary education.

That commercialization involves, among other unsavory things, the extensive use of short-term, temporary and contract personnel (including graduate assistants) to teach and support the courses taken by undergraduate students. These “part-timers” are paid very low wages, enjoy few or none of the benefits of full-time/tenured teaching staff and have no job security from year-to-year, sometimes over five, 10 and 15 years.

Undergraduate students continue to pay increased tuition fees, have limited access to the full-time teaching/ research staff and have to depend on the “part-timers” who have limited or no access to office space and the other supporting facilities that should be the norm for meaningful and effective interaction with the students. For these students, large classes and such inadequate services are compounded by years of accumulated student debt followed by even more years of debt repayment after they graduate.

The fact our society has tolerated and continues to tolerate such institutionalized abuse of the rights of those two categories of victims speaks volumes about the depths to which we are allowing our country to sink. None of the authorities and the relevant parties to this educational stink can claim to be unaware of the essentials of the sordid reality. For those who read the mass media, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the CBC and our own Caribbean Camera have publicized several aspects of the debacle.

Therefore, since no one can deny there is a very serious problem, why is there little co-ordinated effort to attack this structural cancer? There are two reasons for the blatant inertia. None of the “authorities” feels any shame. And none of them feels it is their duty to intervene with the forceful leadership and collective determination that the putrid situation requires.

Worse, there is an absence of caring in the face of the fact there are solutions available, only one of which is being applied, according to recent reports. The blaring indifference in their excuses is deafening: The excuses tend to be one or more of the following: “It is not our fault. We don’t have enough money. We need more government funding.”

Let us take a quick look at those excuses and other relevant factors.

It is true government funding has fallen drastically. Some available statistics for Ontario indicate government funding for post-secondary costs had dropped from 90% in the 1960’s and 1970’s to 57% in 2013. Some statistics for Ontario also indicate spending for scholarships and bursaries increased by 135% (figures adjusted for inflation) from $278 million in 2000 to $840 million in 2013-14. According to one source, administrative costs, which include salaries for teaching and research staff, increased by 78% (figures adjusted for inflation) from $934 million in 2000-01 to $1.7 billion in 2013-14. How, then, can anyone justify the abusive treatment meted out to part-timers and undergraduate students?

That question is strikingly relevant because solutions do exist. The one mentioned earlier involves the creation of a new career stream of academic staff assigned to teaching only, with no research duties.

So, notwithstanding the recent strikes at the University of Toronto and York University, the crassly commercial abuse of the rights of part-timers and students has to be stopped. The solutions require give-and-take compromises on the part of all categories of academic and administrative staff with the help of their representative bodies. These compromises must be equitable and may be implemented in phases to minimize the pain of the financial re-adjustments.

The heavy-lifting has to be undertaken by the top management of the universities and colleges themselves.

Let us start with Ontario. We know we can count on the unqualified political support of one former MPP/ Minister of Education to demand that the unconscionable and malodorous abuse be brought to an end.

That will lead to a win/win/Wynne result in which all participants will come out smelling of perfume.