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President’s Message / A thumb on the scale

President’s Message / A thumb on the scale

President Brenda Austin Smith

by Brenda Austin-Smith

The ferocity of employer attacks on our working conditions in the postsecondary education sector has been aided and abetted by equally vicious actions taken against the system itself by provincial governments. The stripping of millions upon millions of dollars from the budgets of universities and colleges in Alberta comes to mind for those of us following funding news.

Less visible to the public, but staring students and their families in the face, are jacked up tuition fees in that same province. Unless you are an undergraduate student (or someone providing care and support to one) the phrase “differential fees” might not mean all that much. But if you are scanning the sudden increases in the cost of courses at institutions in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and maybe soon, in Manitoba, the reality of huge increases to fees (depending on what program you are studying) is a shock. And just imagine the anxiety of international students, who must pay double — and sometimes more than double — those tuition costs to get an education here.

Isn’t it odd, too, that the deepest cuts to PSE funding come from provincial governments who also insert themselves into the workings of our institutions in the most egregious ways? I’d have thought that as governments ghost our sector as funders, they’d demand less control over us, not more. Provincial governments seem deliberately to be discouraging enrolments in courses and programs they don't like. And isn’t it odder still that our administrations stay largely quiet as the cuts continue and the meddling becomes more assertive? One wonders what it takes for administrations to speak up for the institutions they are supposed to represent, stand up for and lead.

I mention all this because there is a direct line between intrusiveness of provincial governments into what should be independent institutions, the failure of administrators to protect the autonomy of those institutions, and the six strikes we saw CAUT associations lead in the last few months. In each set of negotiations and job actions, it was clear members were the target of both inside and external opponents, each bent on exacting various degrees of control over the pay, benefits, and academic freedom of members, and over the power of the university or college itself to set its own academic path, guided by academic expertise rather than the hostility to curiosity-driven research and teaching for the public good. In true horror film tradition, the calls were coming from both within, and outside the house.

CAUT members hung up the phone and walked out.

Policy and political action are effective responses to these attacks. Policy expresses our principles, the values and beliefs that drive our actions as members of a national federation of academic staff. Policy expresses our commitment to public service, to workplace justice, and to the broader social rights we champion as part of the larger labour movement. Political action is animated policy: it is members speaking up in senates and general faculty councils, raising their hands in meetings of the board of governors to make sure our concerns are raised, debated, and heard. Organized members mobilizing around their bargaining issues is political action, and we are made more powerful when we join our issues to those of others in the public sector for the good of our communities.

It is in this context that Bill C-260, tabled by Heather McPherson, the Member of Parliament for Edmonton-Strathcona, is worth noting.

Private members’ bills, especially those tabled by opposition MPs, do not often become law because they need the support of the government to make it to debate on the floor of the House of Commons. Our call for a framework for dedicated funding for PSE has been heard and translated into policy action. A framework that protects the portion of the Canada Social Transfer that is supposed to go to PSE from re-direction by provincial governments would go a long way to reversing the damage done to our sector. Such a framework would make administrators accountable for the precarious work they generate, using funding cuts as an excuse. Such a framework might stop another Laurentian University insolvency disaster.

Recent and potential agreements between the federal government and the provinces on childcare, housing, pharmacare and dental care show that this can be done. The scales could be balanced once more.

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