OPSEU meets with Bob Rae commission

OPSEU members from the College Academic, College Support and Universities Sectors met with Bob Rae to present a submission on the future of post-secondary funding and quality. Read OPSEU president Leah Casselman's remarks.


Toronto (22 Nov 2004) - Hello, I’m Leah Casselman, President of OPSEU. With me are Stephanie Blake, chair of our universities sector, representing support staff at five universities; Janice Hagan, Chair of our Colleges support unit, representing support staff at 24 Ontario colleges; Peter McKeracher and Fernand Bégin, representing academic staff at 24 Ontario Colleges.

We’re here today to talk to you about the presentation we made this morning to the Bob Rae Commission on post-secondary education. I’d like to introduce very briefly some of the themes we covered in the hour or so we spent with Mr. Rae.

Our presentation focused on education quality.

Our union is unique in that we represent staff in both the universities and the colleges. Our members know that the post-secondary system, which started out as two systems, is rapidly becoming in fact one system. Yet it is a system where some members are more equal than others.

Because of this quality suffers.

We told Rae about the problems arising from the rampant use of part-timers in the colleges. The part-timers are not allowed to join a union or bargain collectively, and there are more part-time profs and support staff in the colleges than there are full-time.

This is undermining the quality of education our students receive.

It also undermines the bargaining power of faculty and support staff in an unfair way.

Because part-timers cannot organize, the colleges are using the part-timers as a pool of cheap labour. There can be no justification for this.

You cannot justify banning college part-timers from organizing, simply on the basis of cost. Part-timers can organize in every other area of the private and public sector.

Every employer is worried about cost. So why this special and unfair exemption for the colleges? 

We are focusing on this issue, as we know the detrimental effect this exemption has on the quality of work that gets done, and on the quality of education students receive.

Wages for part-timers are about 30 per cent those of full timers. They do not have pensions or benefits.

How does this situation undermine the quality of education? When the student wants help, the part-time teacher is working at their other job, and is not on campus. The part-time counselor or librarian is not there. There is nowhere for the student and the instructor to meet.

The part-timer faculty in the colleges have no access to professional development. They have no workload formula, so they can be loaded up with huge student numbers.

The support worker – who more and more is doing hands-on work with students – is not there. There is an information technology problem that can’t be fixed until tomorrow.

Someone can’t get registered when they need to.

Support staff also play a crucial role in ensuring that the college is a well-functioning educational institution that attracts students. If support staff are engaged in part-time precarious employment, they may be less likely to work hard at building up the college over the long term.

They will not accumulate the institutional memory, expertise and commitment that adds so much value to the college and to the pedagogical experience of the students.

Part-timers are also subject to harassment, human rights violations, and other forms of discrimination. Many work what in reality are full-time hours, but are kept on part-time status anyway.

They are denied normal employment rights: such as maternity protection, disability protection, the right to be considered for full-time work.

We have in our media kit some case histories of college support staff and faculty, and how they are exploited and harassed as part time workers because the system enables or abets this treatment.

We told Bob Rae that, to preserve education quality in the colleges, Colleges Collective Bargaining Act has to be changed to allow part-timers to join a union.

We also told him about some numbers. In recent years, total student numbers have increased by 43 per cent while the number of faculty declined by 23 per cent. That’s according to the employer. We believe these numbers understate the case.

We spoke about funding and accountability. With better funding must come greater public accountability in the offices of college and university presidents, a greater need for scrutiny. 

Even as governments have provided inadequate funding to the colleges, administrators have not directed appropriate funding to the classroom.

In most cases presidents and vice-presidents have given themselves huge wage increases, even as they demand that individual programs make larger and larger contributions to overhead.

The former francophone college in Toronto, for instance, was destroyed by grandiose and unaccountable administration. OPSEU is still in court over this. The growth in the contribution to overhead is a siphon on resources intended for the classroom. Colleges and universities have to be accountable for what they spend.

There are similar problems in the universities sector. The history of universities is that of private or semi-private institutions, but everyone recognizes that universities in Ontario are now part of the system of public post-secondary learning institutions.

Universities need to have a more open and transparent operating process; and inclusion in the Freedom of Information legislation would open them up and hold their administrations more accountable.

We also told Rae about the unique problems faced by our University support staff. They play a key role in education, but are the first to be cut or laid off because they are not protected by tenure, as are many faculty.

We also spoke about funding and accessibility issues.

The Rae Commission wants to see more students eligible to enter post-secondary education and reduce the barriers for those with economic limitations or members of designated groups. We applaud the objective and advise that we all have an obligation to ensure the education students receive will be of high quality.

Accessibility has to be improved for Ontario to remain in its leadership role. We cannot believe the fallacy that lower tuition favours the children of the wealthy. Studies show tuition increases actually lead to declines in enrolment, particularly among low-income students.

Income contingent loans are the wrong way to go. They create rather than reduce inequities. Instead of looking at Australia and New Zealand as comparators, we should be looking at Scandinavia, Ireland and Scotland, where tuition has been reduced or eliminated.

Ontario was once a leader in education. Today, Ontario is tenth in Canada in its per capita funding of post-secondary education. We need to inject millions of dollars into the system just to catch up with the other nine provinces’ average funding for post secondary.

We need to ensure post secondary education, both at colleges and universities, remains a priority. We need to ensure all staff are respected and their roles are understood.

Again, the issue of the part-timers cannot be ignored. They must be allowed the same rights as any other workers in this province. It is a matter of both education quality and human rights.

Again, this government can wait no longer to address the exploitation of the part-timers.

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