College strikes a symptom of broken business model

TheStar.com – News/Queen’s Park – If everyone is losing out — students, teachers, colleges, parents, politicians — why are we continuing down a dead end?
Oct. 16, 2017.   By

Critical thinking is the principal lesson we’re taught at school, for which we can thank teachers.

As long as they’re in the classroom.

More than 12,000 teaching staff went on strike this week, shutting down classes for roughly 300,000 students at all 24 colleges across the province.

Any strike is serious business. But when it affects the public sector, hurts vulnerable students and bleeds our educational institutions, the stakes are especially high.

Understandably, students are now sharing petitions demanding that instructors return to the negotiating table — and the classroom — rather than holding their studies hostage. The petitioners say they are sending a message to both sides:

“We pay your salaries. It is our tuition money that you are fighting over. Get back to the bargaining table, compromise, and figure it out. Or we want our money back.”

It’s a reasonable request, but unrealistic. Critical thinking teaches us that nothing is quite so simple in labour negotiations.

Both sides dig in and glare hard, each daring the other to blink first. When the power of persuasion ultimately fails, what follows is the power of pressure tactics, which is where we are today.

Students pay the biggest price, which is why they are demanding refunds. Reduced revenues would hurt the colleges hard. Teachers are also going unpaid, which is tough if you aren’t highly paid to start. And parents are fretting that their kids are losing out. Which puts politicians under pressure.

If everyone is losing out — students, teachers, colleges, parents, politicians — why are we continuing down a dead end?

Post-secondary education is in a boom, but a bust looms in this unsustainable business model. Enrolments keep rising, with politicians trying to please parents and students by making college more accessible. That puts pressure on institutions to compete for ever more students, while restraining tuition increases, all the while minimizing salaries for professors, instructors and sessional lecturers.

The more we mass produce graduates in a factory setting, while minimizing teaching inputs, the sooner our massive campus infrastructure will crumble. If teachers are merely interchangeable commodities going through the motions in the classroom, today’s students will surf online to download the same old lectures.

Increasingly, students and teachers are in the same boat, facing a precarious future with limited career prospects or job security. Imagine you are lecturing your class on labour economics, describing tomorrow’s workforce that remains on contract year after year, at the mercy of unpredictable schedules because employers demand unlimited flexibility.

At a community college, that lecturer isn’t reading from a case study on precarious employment. He or she is telling their own life story on the job, in the classroom.

Ontario’s colleges insist their proposed wage hike of 7.75 per cent over four years is comparable to other public sector workers. But an inordinate number of teachers are part-timers with partial loads who are paid an hourly wage that doesn’t cover time spent marking papers or preparing lectures. They don’t know from one semester to the next who or what they’ll be teaching.

York and the University of Toronto are also grappling with this outdated piecework model, which prompted bitter strikes by part-timers demanding greater job security in 2015. The dirty little secret of higher education is that working conditions have hit rock bottom.

OPSEU, the union representing college teachers, wants half of teaching staff hired as full-timers. That hardly seems excessive.

But the union overreached by demanding a decision-making senate to oversee how each campus is run (aping an already-outdated university model for governance gridlock). Given that OPSEUcan’t even get its own house in order (see past columns on its own staff grievances and internecine incompetence), this union was in no position to co-manage campuses, and belatedly dropped the idea.

As for college presidents, their claims of generosity toward teachers belie their own egregious greed earlier this year, when they tried to slip through pay hikes of up to 55 per cent for themselves. Back then, public pressure prompted the government to rein them in — and the longer this strike drags on, the more pressure will build for the government to step in again.

Whether it is curbing excessive executive salaries or ensuring greater fairness for part-time teachers, the ultimate objective is value for money — and educational values. Both sides have been belabouring their rival labour agendas for too long. Time for a little more constructive critical thinking.

https://www.thestar.com/news/queenspark/2017/10/16/college-strikes-a-symptom-of-broken-business-model-cohn.html

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