CAUT has joined forces with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and the National Union of Public General Employees (NUPGE) to launch the Education for All campaign. Together representing more than one million students and workers, the coalition is putting forth a vision of a more affordable, accessible, high quality, and publicly-funded post-secondary education (PSE) system. On January 21, representatives from each organization discussed the long-simmering issues in PSE upon which the pandemic has shone a bright spotlight.
CAUT President Brenda Austin-Smith focused on two messages: underfunding, and the need for a healthy PSE sector as a critical part of a strong post-pandemic recovery. “COVID has exposed the frailties of an already underfunded national PSE system. Many people don’t realize that less than 50 per cent of the funding for PSE in Canada now comes from government sources, and so most of the costs of rising college and university tuition now rests on the shoulders of our students and their families,” she noted. “Colleges and universities are where knowledge, innovation and talent grow and thrive. Our institutions are where research grows creative responses to threats like COVID, climate change and other challenges to the way we live, work, teach and learn. The strength of the sector is key to a resilient future for us all.”
Karen Ranalletta, the president of CUPE local 2950 representing over 1500 clerical, library and theatre workers at the University of British Columbia, pointed to the community of workers who come together on campuses, all part of creating an environment of excellence. “CUPE represents over 70,000 workers in the sector, including academic staff, teaching assistants and support staff such as building operators and clerical staff in libraries, food services and IT areas,” she said. “They are the front-line workers who are behind the scenes but incredibly important to students’ success and, in fact, the success of our public education system. COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of every role in our workplaces.”
Representing the CFS, National Treasurer Alannah McKay described how the pandemic has impacted students’ learning experience, with the shift to online learning highlighting issues around accessibility and a growing mental health crisis within the student body. “A recovery from this pandemic must also mean reimagining the student experience and building a culture of care on and off our campuses, ensuring students’ physical, mental and spiritual well-being is supported along with learning,” she said, also noting that lack of Internet access is a serious barrier for students in rural and northern areas, and for those with lower incomes. “This speaks to a wider conversation about what access to education really means, and that includes breaking down barriers for students who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour, and making the PSE environment welcoming for them, and a place where racialized students want to stay, and learn.”
The importance of ongoing investments in fundamental research and stabilization of the research workforce was the focus of France Filion’s remarks. France spoke on behalf of PSAC Quebec, which represents research staff. “It is in the long-term that we can see the use of investments in fundamental science,” she noted. “Without it, applied research does not exist. Artificial intelligence, pharmaceuticals and other innovations are based on fundamental research.” She made a number of recommendations including enhanced investments in basic science and better data on research staff.
The growing, critical issue of precarity in PSE was dissected by NUPGE President Larry Brown, who calls the COVID crises not just a health, but a social issue as well. “COVID has really exposed the huge problem that we have in universities and colleges regarding the use of precariously-employed instructors. It’s hard to retain excellence and consistency in education when instructors come and go all the time. It’s hard for them to earn a reasonable living, and this precariat has become a disposable workforce that is invisible, and does not show up on any unemployment list when they aren’t called back on temporary contract,” he said. Brown also described the demographic shift currently underway with aging Baby Boomers retiring in large numbers, leaving countless jobs open that require an educated young workforce to fill. “Canada needs affordable, professionally developed and delivered high-quality PSE, built first and foremost on free tuition. It’s a social imperative.”
Listeners asked how students can best support workers and vice-versa. “The first thing to do is find out if there is already a coalition operating on your campus,” Austin-Smith replied. “If there isn’t, start one. It’s never too late to become an activist.”