UMFA strike highlights issues at many universities

The University of Winnipeg faces administrative hurdles as well

Profs, students and supporters gather on Chancellor Matheson Rd. for a picket line on Nov. 18.

Photo by Jessica Botelho-Urbanski (Metro News)

The recent University of Manitoba Faculty Association’s (UMFA) strike pushed back against eroding job security and increasing workloads that take time away from teaching and research, bringing light to the complexity of labour relations in a university context. 

The University of Manitoba’s (U of M) administration, like that of many Canadian universities, has ballooned over the past decades with more staff and larger budgets. To try and reign in costs, the administration has deployed a litany of methods including relying on vacancy management, hiring sessionals as opposed to tenured faculty and increasing class sizes and non-academic workloads for faculty.

As a Queen’s University Journal editorial on the UMFA strike demonstrates, the U of M isn’t the only institution in Canada dealing with a lack of funding and ballooning expenses. The issues the UMFA is striking over plague the University of Winnipeg (U of W) as well. It’s clear that a fair deal for the UMFA would be precedent setting for the University of Winnipeg Faculty Association (UWFA) and good for students across the country.

At the U of W, vacancy management (holding previously filled positions vacant in order to save salary costs) is a standard practice. And though U of W president Dr. Annette Trimbee saw the end to a multi-year hiring freeze, breathing some life into some suffocating departments, faculty salaries are among the lowest of all Canadian universities.

For the 2016-17 academic year, contract faculty teaching one three-credit hour course receive $4,874. The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) has been in bargaining for a fair wage with the university for teaching assistants, research assistants and tutors since May 2012. 

To keep costs low, contract faculty are often only offered contracts for three years at a time. Contracts extended after three consecutive years would become permanent faculty – achieving a basic level of job security. 

The result is a constant cycling of faculty through contracts because administration avoids the increased costs of permanent employment. This means that contract faculty have a reduced ability to develop the networks and institutional knowledge that enrich the campus ecosystem.

Services at the U of W are also underfunded. The school had only one general counsellor until a student-led campaign pressured the university into hiring two more in 2015. Meanwhile, student services, physical plant, housing and accessibility services end up doing more work with fewer staff and smaller budgets than they need.

Faculty salaries, teaching workloads, academic contributions and administrative responsibilities are not a race to the bottom. Higher quality education comes from instructors who are not forced to make sacrifices that take them away from teaching and research. 

Increasing tuition fees is not a sustainable or reasonable solution to underfunding. Costs impact accessibility and force students to juggle employment, coursework, bills, and cost of living.

Governments and university administrations must work collaboratively to fortify post-secondary education rather than undermining its quality. It’s plain and simple: what the UMFA fought for is critical to resisting damaging changes to higher education across Canada.

Jesse Blackman is a former vice-president with the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association.

Published in Volume 71, Number 12 of The Uniter (November 24, 2016)

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