York strikers show the way — now let’s build a truly public university

Protracted labour dispute raises questions of post-secondary governance and funding
Photo: OFL Communications

The strikes at York University, the University of Toronto, and elsewhere have opened a long overdue debate about student debt, precarious labour in the academy, rising tuition, and, to a lesser extent, university governance. The York University strike offers an opportunity to argue for the continuing relevance of universities as public institutions. The importance of the public in the public university is especially true for York, which, if it embraced its role as such, could tackle a new list of issues and lead the way for other educational institutions.

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Precarity, debt, and defensive struggle

York's contract faculty are the precarious academic labourers whose difficulties have been brought into some public light by the York strike and other labour actions in North America. The contract faculty settled earlier in March. The teaching assistants and graduate assistants had to battle on until the end of the month to win their objectives.

Although the strike ended in a victory, the struggle was mainly defensive. In previous contracts, the union on strike at York, CUPE 3903, won a funding package that includes work as a TA (or, for work outside the classroom, as a GA). The total package offered to a student is usually in the range of $12,000 to $18,000 for the year. Out of this, a domestic student has to pay around $6,500 tuition. International students might get the same package, but their tuition is much higher — somewhere around the size of their whole funding package.

Students are eligible for such funding only if they have full-time status. If they work more than 10 hours per week outside of their studies and on-campus jobs as TAs or GAs, they are ineligible. So, when the administration presented the claim that TAs were getting paid $52/hour, they neglected to add that this was up to a hard limit of about $9,000 for a year. In order to get this $52/hour, students had to figure out how to live on about $30/day (or, for international students, $0/day). Of course, students could take on additional debt, the implicit solution that university administrations continuously try to impose on students.

York’s demographics present a picture of that kind of public university, a place whose student body looks like the population and not like the rulers.

The union did not go on strike trying to get its members out of this low-wage situation. The union went on strike because management was trying to assert its right to raise tuition while maintaining the funding package at the same rate.

This is the indexation issue that management avoided discussion of for a month, the gain won by the union in previous strikes that management tried and failed to roll back. Indexation means that if the university wants to take more from TAs and GAs in tuition, it also has to pay TAs and GAs more money so that they can pay the university. Losing indexation would have meant that, rather than helping TAs and GAs subsist, their work on campus would merely give them the slightest reduction in the massive debt they would incur while studying.

The U.S. and U.K. systems, in which students at all levels incur ever more massive debt while receiving less and less, and with fewer and worse prospects after graduation, seems to be the model. The striking workers successfully held the line against that erosion.

The academic and the administrative

The York strike also highlighted the problem of a university no longer under academic control. This issue is of more public importance than it may seem on the surface.

Unlike most workplaces that are under the uncontested control of managers, at universities the struggle for academic freedom has been linked to another struggle, that for collegial governance, the idea that academic matters should be under the control of academics (faculty and also students) and not under the control of managers.

Defending collegial governance involves constant battles over policies and procedures, careful readings and debates, and can seem arcane and obscure to the non-university public. But collegial governance, like academic freedom, is an important thing for society to have, and it deserves some public attention — and protection. Let us look at it in the context of York's strike.

The first way that the administration has strengthened itself has been by moving money. The erosion of the university's teaching budget has been accompanied by an expansion in the administrative share of the budget. Budgets are contentious and political, and university administrations contest the notion that they are bloated at the expense of the university's core activities. The analyses are worth looking at: Benjamin Ginsburg describes the growth of university administration at U.S. universities in his book The Fall of the Faculty, and scientist Bjorn Brembs tackles the issue in Germany in a blog post.

York's faculty union, YUFA, did some interesting analysis of York's financial statements. While not discussing academic and administrative budgets in detail, it does deal with how to think about the financial statements of a public institution. YUFA also produced a report that described the growth of managerialism.

The growth of the university's administration at the expense of its academic mission is not solely a matter of money, as Ginsburg's Fall of the Faculty documents. The growth of "student life" programs under the control of the administrative apparatus has seen students offered more programs in things like time management and study skills, while academic programs in languages, literature, or history are starved of resources. York University has a Senate that is the ultimate authority on academic matters, but the Senate does not have the power to decide what is and is not an academic matter — that is the prerogative of the administration.

The idea of a public university open to everyone, where the cultural knowledge to shape and change society is taught and developed, is a dangerous idea for those who fear the public.

Before the current strike, the York community was presented with apocalyptic budget projections (which have since been challenged by YUFA and CUPE) as well as warnings about low enrolments.

York's administration imposed a process called the Academic and Administrative Prioritization and Review, or AAPR — another management tool that was imposed on other Canadian universities, such as Guelph and the University of Saskatchewan, to destructive effect. Several faculty councils at York repudiated the AAPR and rejected its use in academic planning. Like the strike, the AAPR ended up opening an overdue debate on administrative attacks on the academic mission of the university (see Michael Ornstein's presentation for a fine example of applying academic criteria to a managerial exercise and Craig Heron's essay on the consultant Robert Dickeson, whose methodology is used in AAPRs across North America).

Amazingly, in a context of enrolment and budget fears, the York administration walked into negotiations with CUPE 3903 seeking concessions that the union could not accept, and took over a month to make any movement towards an acceptable offer.

As an alternative to bargaining, the administration used a reading of the university's policy on remediation — intended to provide guidance on how to restart the university after a disruption is over — to start remediating during the strike. The “remediation” ended up making students more uncertain, increasing physical pressure and fear of violence on the picket lines as thousands of drivers tried to cross daily to attend classes that may or may not have been proceeding.

For an administration worried about enrolment, it is difficult to imagine how this could have been anything other than a nightmare scenario — unless low enrolments themselves might provide another tool that administrators could use to discipline the academics?

York, a public university

Like every public institution, universities are changing. They are becoming more hierarchical, more corporate, less accessible, and less free. Defending their role, even expanding it, may not be possible from within their walls alone. But should the non-university-going public care?

Universities cost society massive amounts of resources, and everyone within them, from the administration to the student body, has some relative privilege compared to the many people who never get the chance to go. Scholars' reputations for obscurity and detachment from the real world doesn't make it easy for these same scholars to ask the public for resources or for help defending the institution. But public indifference to what is happening at universities only serves the administrators who are eroding them.

And truly public universities could be extremely socially beneficial. Take York again, and consider some 2006 figures that will not have changed much in the decade since. Located in North Toronto, York's students come from families with a median household income of $55,881, compared to an average of $74,093 for all Ontario university families. The median household income for York students in 2006 was actually lower than the median household income for Ontario in 2005, which, at $72,734, was only slightly lower than the average for Ontario university-going families. Ryerson students came from slightly more affluent families ($56,733) and University of Toronto from slightly more affluent than that ($58,895). The contrast with universities such as Western and Queen’s, with median family incomes above $100,000, is striking.

More than 50 per cent of York's students commute for more than 40 minutes, and 57 per cent of York's first-year students rely on public transit to get to school, compared to 32 per cent of Ontario students. Of first-year York students, 60 per cent are female, compared to 55 per cent for Ontario. Of senior-year York students, 72 per cent work for pay off campus, compared to 46 per cent for Ontario; 43 per cent are from a visible minority compared to 29 per cent for Ontario. Where 70 per cent of Ontario students had a parent with post-secondary education, 65 per cent of York students could say the same.

How could we have a totally seamless relationship with the non-university public, in which the university becomes a source of knowledge and not a place where knowledge is locked up to be accessed only by those who pay to be within its walls?

For many decades in North America, universities were designed to train and prepare the ruling class and the professionals who serviced them. But starting after WWII, public universities started to open up and transform into places that potentially everyone could go. York’s demographics present a picture of that kind of public university, a place whose student body looks like the population and not like the rulers.

It may not be coincidental that at the most public of universities, there is a strong emphasis on humanities and social sciences — 53 per cent of first-year students compared to 38 per cent in Ontario, 51 per cent of senior-year students compared to 42 per cent in Ontario. I love science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and I think this type of education is both vitally important and under attack, especially under the Harper government. But social sciences and humanities — philosophy, literature, history, political science, geography, sociology, linguistics, economics — are fields that help students understand power and understand the world they live in. They are fields that give students a chance of shaping the future.

In his 2008 book Unmaking the Public University, English professor Chris Newfield of the University of California, Santa Barbara, argues that the attack on the social sciences and humanities — the devaluing of cultural knowledge — was a part of the assault on public universities and part of the assault on the North American middle class.

The idea of a public university open to everyone, where the cultural knowledge to shape and change society is taught and developed, is a dangerous idea for those who fear the public.

Who is subsidizing, and who is subsidized?

Newfield's book is full of insights, many of which are highly relevant to Canadian universities and especially to York. One in particular relates to university budgets. Part of a professor's job, especially in the natural sciences, is to seek external research funding. The grants that professors win in competitions bring prestige to their universities and make it possible to do research. Many believe that these grants help subsidize other parts of the university, but Newfield points out that the grants never cover the full costs of the research, and the university has to provide some matching funds for every grant.

Where do these matching funds come from? From the teaching budget from where most of the students are: the social sciences and the humanities. So, here again, what most people believe is the reverse of reality: it turns out that teaching in the social sciences and humanities subsidizes research in the natural sciences, not the other way around.

In the background of the York strike is the provincial funding formula, which has continued to erode the public part of university budgets. Universities in Ontario responded by following what was done in the United States: they have sought to squeeze more tuition out of students and more funds from private donors.

York’s administration has also sought to expand its science, technology, engineering and mathematics profile and reduce, in relative terms, its social sciences and humanities profile. The fact that the social sciences and humanities faculty and students are among the most “unruly,” the most likely to insist on collegial governance, and highly active in unions, may not be lost on the administration.

Unfortunately university administrations are all alike, and there are no models for creatively managing public institutions.

But none of these strategies will work to the competitive advantage of York, many of whose students will either receive a public education or no education at all. This puts York in an interesting position, as it makes the public option the most strategic one for the institution to survive and thrive. Unfortunately university administrations are all alike, and there are no models for creatively managing public institutions. There are only corporate models of total top-down control, privilege, and power at the top, and obedience and fear at the bottom.

York's social sciences and humanities programs, which attract huge numbers of students and probably subsidize the rest of the university, will never be shut down. But an administrative vision would see these programs carefully controlled, delivered by insecure teachers with no union protections or academic freedom, and students who pay huge amounts to shut up and study like their instructors, who gratefully accept a tiny share of the budget for the chance to shut up and teach.

It doesn't have to be this way, especially at York. We could try, instead, to be who we are, instead of trying to be something we are not.

What if York were to lead other universities in the aggressive pursuit of the public option? Embracing its progressive traditions, embracing its diverse and in many cases oppressed student body, and working on a whole new list of problems. What would it take to achieve free tuition? How could we speed up and open up the peer review process? How could we run the university on free software and free information? How could we ensure that everyone who works at the university has a good job at a living wage and the freedom to contribute creatively to the community and to say what they think? How could we have a totally seamless relationship with the non-university public, in which the university becomes a source of knowledge and not a place where knowledge is locked up to be accessed only by those who pay to be within its walls? These are the more interesting problems that we could work on at places such as York.

The alternative is to become another all-administrative university with cowed, indebted students taught by cowed, temporary faculty. York's TAs, GAs, and contract faculty have shown the way, but the struggle for a truly public university will be a long one.

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