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Election primer

Election primer

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With the federal election approaching this October, what are the things academics should consider before casting their vote?

Ingrid Roorda, 23, knows how much a Canadian post-secondary education costs, and sees it as a federal election issue. The mechanical engineering student chose the University of Waterloo because it offered paying co-ops jobs, and she’s added years to her normally four-year program to take full advantage of work placements that sent her as far as Switzerland and Germany.

With those, and some parental help, she’ll graduate later than her classmates will — but with less debt. “My parents definitely helped me,” she says. “And I went to Waterloo and did the co-ops to help reduce my indebtedness, but it’s going to take me six years to graduate.”

She achieved voting age in Europe, and will vote here in the fall. She knows that federal government transfer payments support provincial education programs, but she and other students haven’t seen any federal party talking up education: “I’ve not seen or heard anything.”

In Germany, she found that post-secondary education is essentially free. German friends gently ribbed her with grumbles about yearly payments of €250 ($350) in “extra fees” that were their only education costs. That’s a far cry from Canada, where an average undergraduate student last year paid out $7,759.

Since 2008, post-secondary student fees have jumped by 23 per cent. Total student indebtedness to Canada Student Loans has increased 40 per cent since then, rising in 2018-2019 to a total of $21 billion. Such statistics are the tip of a worrying iceberg for students and faculty alike. Three decades ago, public funds formed 80 per cent of total university operating revenues, a proportion now closer to 50 per cent. In the past quarter century, federal transfer payments to support post-secondary education have fallen by 40 per cent per student. These numbers highlight a troubling reality. Post-secondary institutions are searching ever harder for money to sustain all they do.

Despite the silence on post-secondary education in the current political landscape, public opinion research that CAUT recently commissioned from Abacus Data finds that three in four Canadians believe universities and colleges have a positive impact on the country’s direction. On this metric, post-secondary institutions rank higher than police forces, corporations, news media, the military, social media — and even Parliament.

Tellingly, the survey als­­­o finds that Canadians see rising education costs as a significant barrier. Most respondents say post-secondary education is worth their time and effort, and fully 93 per cent say they would enrol after high school if tuition weren’t an issue — but some 29 per cent aren’t convinced it’s worth the current cost to them.

“This survey confirms that there is a broad appreciation for the value of advanced education in the population and that costs are a bar to getting one,” says CAUT president Brenda Austin-Smith.

The survey also found that Canadians are concerned about the growing numbers of precarious part-time instructors, yet another consequence of inadequate public funding. Precarious work is reinforcing systemic inequities. Data from the 2016 census reveal that women and other marginalized groups are overrepresented in part-time and part-year positions, while they remain underrepresented in the ranks of full-time academics across the country. Only 27 per cent of full-time professors are women. Black academics comprise only 2 per cent of all university professors. Aboriginal academics form just 1.4 per cent of university professors, and 3 per cent of college instructors.

“Our current system is under stress,” says CAUT executive director David Robinson. “If the last decade showed us anything, it’s that we can’t sit on our hands. More students want to attend university or college, but cost and the number of places available limit access. New federal and provincial investments would give our institutions options like reducing student fees to increase access, hiring to improve faculty-to-student ratios, and developing new programs. This country’s colleges and universities are a steadying influence in unsettled times, and the federal government needs to be a stronger partner.”

Austin-Smith says all the political parties should take an interest in post-secondary education. “Investing in education is the right thing to do. It’s investing in our future to ensure that we reduce inequality, build social cohesion, and promote our cultural, social, and economic development,” she says. “It’s a crucial issue to address if Canada wants to increase research capacity, access and equity, and give colleges and universities new means to offer decent work instead of employing highly-skilled individuals in precarious, low-paid contracts.”

Karen Harper, a Halifax environmental science and biology lecturer, is all too familiar with precarious part-time contracts, in her own right and as president of CUPE Local 3912. Notoriously, she notes that some contract instructors in Halifax are paid less than anywhere else in Canada.

Harper says universities and colleges often hire contract instructors on short notice, allowing them little preparation time. “One of the courses I’m teaching this fall, I just found out I’m teaching it yesterday,” she says in the second week of August. “It’s a course I’ve taught before. But I’ve found out I was teaching a new course less than 48 hours before the first class — that’s happened to me.”

Precarious work hurts students, she says, because contract instructors are not supported in research that could inform their teaching. And part-timers she knows worry they can’t devote enough time to their students and their own families as they are often forced to run between Halifax’s three major universities in a scramble to scrape together a living wage.

Meanwhile, the federal Liberal government has taken some steps to repair the gaping hole in research funding. In its April 2017 report, the Advisory Panel for the Review of Federal Support for Fundamental Science recommended $1.67 billion in new funding to the research granting councils, paid over five years. The February 2018 budget invested significantly in research and science, including historic increases to Tri-Council base funding for basic research, but still fell short of the advisory panel’s recommendations. At the time, CAUT’s Federal Budget Highlights noted that the budget committed to just 62 per cent of the ongoing base funding for open-operating grants that the panel had urged.

Julia M. Wright, associate research professor in English Literature and president of Dalhousie University’s faculty association — and a former Canada Research Chair recipient — thinks the seeds of research inequities were sown when the federal government established the Canada Research Chairs Program in 2000 after transfer payments were cut. Fixing this, she says, is long overdue.

The Canada Research Chairs Program, she says, “was kind of a value added” before reduced transfer payments affected post-secondary education drastically. “So here we are coming up to 2020. It seems to me there should be some kind of comparable program that addresses the problem of the rising percentage of faculty positions that are precarious, not 2,000 research chairs, but 2,000 or significantly more subsidized faculty positions across the country. I would put it this way: we had enough food on the table and the Canada Research Chairs were dessert. Now we don’t have enough food on the table. We are seeing an absolutely tragic waste of talent in this country.”

CAUT president Brenda Austin-Smith agrees. “Forcing trained, competent researchers and scientists to live from paycheque to paycheque is a terrible waste. Skilled yet precarious academics represent a huge untapped potential. Institutions need the means to hire these people to do what they trained for: to teach, to conduct research, and provide service to the community.”

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