Labour

Trois-Rivières university ordered to end lockout of professors

Administration appears to be putting profits before education
Photo: Mario Groleau

The Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières has just been ordered to end its lockout of 445 professors. Hélène David, the province’s minister of higher education, made the announcement by saying that students at UQTR have a right to receive educational services.

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You wouldn’t know it from mainstream media headlines, but the lockout began on May 2 and was announced via a press release the night before, on International Workers’ Day. UQTR Rector Daniel McMahon stated that the decision followed a stalemate between the faculty union and the university that has been aggravated by a deficit of $10.7-million for the 2017–18 academic year. To make matters even worse, UQTR professors recently revealed that the university rector sent them an offer illegally, bypassing the union entirely in an unethical attempt to divide them.

While faculty were considering going on strike, the university decreed a lockout, catching everyone by surprise.

While local media have covered the news extensively, it’s made no front pages anywhere else. And why should it? The lockout is taking place in a smallish French-language university with a small rural campus, primarily affecting its professors and students, as well as the local region. It’s not really that important as news goes — unless, of course, one chooses to see what this university’s decision reflects about its main priorities and education’s supposed overall value and role in our society.

When the professors’ collective agreement ended more than a year ago, the union overwhelmingly rejected both offers presented to them, believing the university was not negotiating in good faith. While faculty were considering going on strike, the university decreed a lockout, catching everyone by surprise. Lockouts are bad public relations in any field, but there is something particularly egregious about locking out professors. It’s an affront to education and paints universities in a very bad light because they appear to be prioritizing profit before education. Not a good look.

It’s for these reasons that, while lockouts in universities are not unheard of, they are quite rare. In 2007, St. Thomas University in Fredericton announced it was locking out its faculty — the first time a Canadian academic institution had preemptively locked out its academic staff before a strike. Ottawa’s Carleton University just narrowly avoided one. While the educational system (and the associated costs) are vastly different in the U.S., a 2016 lockout that occurred at Brooklyn’s Long Island University was unprecedented in higher education in that country. That case was particularly troublesome since its unionized professors were barred from campus, blocked from accessing their email accounts, and denied health care for themselves, their partners, and their children.

Administrative salaries go up, but faculty bear the brunt of budget cuts

It’s particularly insulting to see teaching staff treated so poorly for demanding better conditions and wages when the salaries of top university administrators are routinely inflated and often include massive financial perks with no benefit for taxpayers or students. No one doubts the importance of good administration, but what value are centres of education and research to us as a society without their educators and researchers?

As UQTR professor Laurent Turcot stated in a Facebook post, the fact that the university is located outside of an urban area with decision-making powers makes its influence as a source of intellectual discourse and critical thinking even more important to Quebec as a whole. Georgia Vrakas, one of the professors on lockout at UQTR’s Quebec City satellite campus, also expressed her concerns via email with Ricochet.

“It’s troubling because this lockout creates a precedent for other universities as well,” she says. “Instead of negotiating, they can lock the professors out.”

“What makes me angry is that we professors are treated like we are less than nothing by our administration. As if a university could exist without its professors. It’s as if what we contribute to society (teaching, training, research, creating new knowledge, etc.) does not matter.”

Consequences for students and staff are bad

The list of lockout consequences is extensive and affects both students and teaching staff. Winter semester marks may not be in for May 18, jeopardizing students’ graduation; consequentially, students run the risk of not finding a job in their field while those pursuing higher studies cannot be admitted. Master and Ph.D. students can’t apply to or have to decline scholarships or research grants. Internships under the responsibility or supervision of professors are suspended or will not evaluated. Thesis submissions and defences are cancelled and postponed, sometimes with important financial impacts on family members who may come from abroad. Many students can’t be hired by their professors to work on research projects. Summer courses offered by professors are put on hold, and summer schools are cancelled.

A lockout like this one makes a university look like it’s treating its professors as disposable commodities and higher education as an afterthought.

The consequences for professors are also dire. Conferences and colloquiums have been cancelled, impeding the dissemination and expansion of research findings. Research done in collaboration with colleagues from other universities is put on hold. Research grants and financing have been lost or declined, and others are jeopardized. Collaborations and projects with the wider community of Trois-Rivières and beyond are at stake, will not be initiated or had to be terminated. In the meantime, the public pressure is mounting for a solution to quickly be found.

As provincial grants for education have declined throughout Canada, universities have increasingly relied on student fees, along with fundraising. Operating budgets may have become tighter, but that doesn’t justify treating teaching staff poorly or making decisions that penalize your students, who are essentially your clients.

Ultimately, and perhaps most important for those making the decisions to remember, while university lockouts may hurt union members financially, they also, inevitably, hurt an institution’s reputation. A lockout like this one makes a university look like it’s treating its professors as disposable commodities and higher education as an afterthought. That’s certainly not what a university wants to be known for.

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