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Teachers Assistants Striking Against Neo-Liberalism in Education: An Interview with Ayyaz Mallick

Qalandar Bux Memon:  Can you tell us what role Teaching Assistants play in the University of Toronto and York University?

Ayyaz Mallick:  Teaching Assistants (TAs) at both universities are the main point of contact between undergraduate students and the faculty. TAs perform a number of duties, such as running tutorials, marking papers and assignments, invigilating exams and answering student queries. As enrolment increases and teacher to student ratio keeps increasing, the role of TAs has gathered more importance and professors/faculty are usually carrying out course lectures to upwards of 100 to sometimes even 250 students. This means that the focussed time spent in small groups in tutorials with TAs is the students’ main pedagogical avenue.

QBM:   How are they organised?

AM:  TAs at both universities are organised under the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). In University of Toronto (UofT), they are under CUPE Local Unit 3902 and at York it is CUPE 3903. CUPE 3902 and 3903 are made up of a number of different units. So for example, at York, the union is made of three units: Unit 1 (TAs, who are mostly PhD students and sometimes Masters students too), Unit 2 (contract faculty, mostly people who have done their PhDs and are on temporary, course-by-course contracts) and Unit 3 (Graduate Assistants and Research Assistants – GAs and RAs – who are mostly Masters students). There is a similar, but not identical, internal Unit-wise arrangement at UofT. However, there is a slight difference in how the union locals are organised/bargain at the two different universities. At York, CUPE 3903 bargains with the Employer (the University) collectively .i.e. all three Units bargain together, with a single Bargaining Team (BT) having representatives of different Units. At UofT, the different units bargain separately.

QBM:  Why have they gone on strike?

AM:  From Monday 2nd March, the whole of CUPE 3903 (all three units, close to 4000 workers) and CUPE 3902 Unit 1 (TAs, close to 6000 workers) have been on strike. The overarching issue at both universities is a similar one of increasing corporatisation and commercialisation of education and less than adequate graduate funding. At UofT, CUPE 3902 Unit 1’s main demand has been to bring up the basic funding guarantee of graduate students upto the living wage level in Toronto (which is a bit upwards of $23000 annually). The minimum funding guarantee for UofT PhD students in most department is only $15,000 which has been frozen at this level since 2008. This is more than $8000 (35%) below the poverty line in this city. There are some pretty damning statistics with regards to this. For example, even though CUPE 3902 members do almost 60% of the teaching at UofT, only 3.5% of the University’s budget goes to the educators. Similarly, while the TAs/PhD funding package has remained frozen, Cheryl Regeher, Provost of the University of Toronto and a Professor of Social Work (!), has received annual raises of 9.92 per cent, 5.43 per cent, 4.37 per cent, 6.72 per cent, and 4.77 per cent. Similarly, the basic salary of the UofT President Meric Gertler has more than doubled over the last ten years. The basic salaries of Presidents and Vice Presidents of the University is ranging anywhere from between a quarter to close to half a million dollars a year. Similarly, the University of Toronto forecasted profits of $194.4 million for the 2014-2015 fiscal year! And on the other hand, they tried to force a contract on Unit 1 which addressed nothing of these basic demands, and was roundly rejected by ninety percent of the membership at a General Membership Meeting.

At York, the strike was triggered by the university’s inflexibility in the face of four main demands by CUPE 3903: job security for contract faculty (Unit 2s), tuition indexation for graduate students (Units 1 and 3), increasing basic funding guarantee for Unit 3s (mostly Masters students) and introducing LGBTQ as an equity group in the university’s hiring processes. Contract faculty are increasingly the most exploited group within academia. These are people who have done their PhDs, are highly qualified but are unable to secure tenure-track/permanent positions due to lack of education funding and thus forced into temporary jobs. Here they have to re-apply for their jobs and courses every six months to one year which creates a position of extreme precariousness and uncertainty. Naturally, this affects the quality of teaching imparted in the classroom as more than half the courses at York are taught by contract faculty (a trend commensurate with other North American universities). The union has demanded more permanent contracts for Unit 2s however, the University managed to temporarily divide the union as it has offered them some concessions which Unit 2 accepted in a recent ratification vote.

The tuition indexation demand is related to the issue of (in)adequate graduate funding as highlighted in the UofT case above. It basically seeks a guarantee that graduate funding packages will increase corresponding to any increase in tuition fees. This is a critical demand as although tuition indexation language was won by CUPE 3903 after a strike in 2000-2001, York has recently re-interpreted the language so as to increase tuition fees for international students by up to 50% in one go (it increased from $13,000 to $20,000 this year) with prospects of more increases for incoming students, both international and domestic. Thus, the university has tried to divide the union between international and domestic students, and between current and incoming students. The statistics here are also damning. For example, the basic funding guarantee for domestic PhD students at York is close to $18,500. This is below the poverty line even before tuition fees is paid. For international students, the situation is worse: the basic funding package is close to $21,000 which, if you take out tuition, leaves something upwards of $1000 to live on for the whole year! This is even while we work as full time researchers, students and teaching assistants at the university. Moreover, the funding package for Masters students who work as Graduate Assistants (Unit 3) is even more precarious with minimum guarantee of $9000 and tuition fees of $6000. Currently, after much fear mongering by the University and monumental collaborationism by parts of the union leadership, even though Unit 2s have settled, CUPE 3903 Units 1 and 3 remain on strike. Combined with the 6000 Unit 1s in UofT, almost 9000 education workers remain on strike at Canada’s two largest universities.

QBM:  Can you comment on the increasing neo-liberal modes of ‘governmentality’ that have been instituted in Universities at UofT and York University.

As indicated above, the overarching structural issue at play here is the creeping market fundamentalism which is a hallmark of neoliberal capitalism. As such, public services such as education are re-packaged not as fundamental human rights but as commodities for consumption. Moreover, education and academic disciplines are also re-packaged according to an insidious market rationality where their worth is increasingly judged by the “value” they add to the functioning of the capitalist economy. In the case of these post-secondary education in Ontario, only a few example will suffice to illustrate this. For example, in the past few years the Council of Ontario Universities has started referring to students as Basic Income Units (BIUs), which basically measures the rationality of courses and programs according to the relative cost of running these. Students therefore are remodelled as consumers according to a market instrumentality rather than as partaking of and contributing to society’s knowledge base as a social good in it’s own right. In a similar vein, public funding for education is being decreased with more and more reliance on tuition fees from students to run universities. Thus, where two and a half decades ago close to twenty percent of university budgets were comprised of tuition fees, this has now gone close to half the revenue in both universities. In the same time, since 1990, tuition fees for students has gone up by almost 300 percent. This is even while, as mentioned above, the basic salaries (not to speak of bonuses, perks and benefits) of top administrators of the universities have been consistently going up. As such, the commercialisation and corporatisation of education has been proceeding apace. The struggles of CUPE 3902 and 3903 have to be seen in such a broader structural context. Moreover, this phenomenon and attendant responses are not just confined to Ontario province or even Canada. A strike vote of upwards of 50,000 students has taken place in Quebec province of Canada and they could potentially be on strike against austerity policies by the end of this month. In recent times, similar struggles against the neoliberal university have emerged in Italy and Netherlands.

Ayyaz Mallick is a PhD student and member of CUPE 3903 Unit 1

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