University of Toronto: Boundless Exploitation–“Business as Usual” IS the Problem

The following is an invited post by Sarah Williams and Jennifer Gibson.* 

“It’s business as usual at University of Toronto”, the Provost’s messages proclaim. These messages, meant for students and the media, assert that CUPE 3902 Unit 1’s decision to strike has had no impact on undergraduate classes or the daily operations of Canada’s largest university, recently ranked number 20 in the world. This union represents more than 6,000 graduate student employees. The provost’s claims seek to undermine both the value and importance of graduate student labour and justify the administration’s hard line against raising the minimum funding package, stalled at $15,000 per year, to an amount closer to, though not exceeding, Toronto’s version of a poverty line, the “Low Income Cut-Off” (LICO), which is $23,000. However, underneath the calm and unaffected airs of the university administration lies the reality that over 800 undergraduate classes and tutorials are no longer meeting or have been cancelled for the duration of the strike. As finals draw closer, so too does the possibility that students’ graduations may be delayed.

Photo: Daniel Kwan
Photo: Daniel Kwan

At base, the aim articulated by striking CUPE 3902 members is one of structural change to the funding relationship between graduate students and the university. The guaranteed minimum funding package achieved as a direct outcome of this union’s last strike, fifteen years ago, has dramatically diminished in real wage value thanks to the rapidly rising cost of living in one of Canada’s most costly cities, and has not seen any increase to account for inflation since 2008. Meanwhile, tuition––particularly for international students––continues to climb to the maximum rates legal in Ontario ($8,000-20,000––the highest rates in all of Canada). Combined, it is these two issues that have led to the now 21 day standoff between graduate student contract workers and the administration. If any tentative agreement is to achieve ratification, two core demands must be addressed: meaningful increases to the minimum funding package, and significant reductions in post-funded-cohort tuition.

Much to the frustration of striking graduate students, the administration has refused “on principle” to negotiate these matters with the union–this language was explicitly written into the original tentative agreement that was struck down three weeks ago. This stance has been hotly contested by members who argue that it is ludicrous to require teaching assistant/course instructor (TA/CI) labour as a condition of the overall funding package, but not allow any meaningful dialogue on the value or overall structure of said package. Beyond this, deploying our collective leverage as unionized workers is the only concrete means at our disposal to engage with the administration on such matters. A refusal “in principle” to negotiate these matters with CUPE is widely seen as a profoundly unprincipled political play at maintaining a highly uneven distribution of power squarely in the hands of high-level administrators, while silencing available channels through which graduate students may gain a direct voice in determining the conditions under which they must live. While not all graduate students are CUPE members, a significant portion of those under the guaranteed funding package are, and have articulated consent to be represented by the union through the establishment of a strong strike mandate built on these core issues.

The ongoing TA/CI strike at U of T has profoundly opened up space for a critical dialogue on a number of simmering ideological questions surrounding access to education, funding, and livable compensation for both contract labour and the full time research graduate students produce. It is irreducibly a political issue that cuts to the heart of the role of the university in society at large, and the structural experience of graduate students as disposable contract labourers who contribute substantially to the overall teaching load, and particularly to the qualitative pedagogical character of overburdened, over-enrolled courses in which few undergraduate students (referred to as “Basic Income Units” in university planning and finance documents) ever have a chance to engage directly with tenured faculty. Contract graduate student educators are the personal face of the university for most undergraduates, especially in the early years of their studies, as class sizes have dramatically risen apace with the cost of tuition. In this corporatized model of university management, undergrad students are increasingly paying more for less, while compensation for TA/CI labour wrapped into the fulfillment of the guaranteed funding package remains frozen.

This battle, as many voices have asserted since the initial strike vote, is fundamentally about the values and the valuation of university education–and the dedicated work through which it is produced. The stakes of this dispute go beyond the personal circumstances of these 6,000 union members––it is fundamentally a rejection of the corporatization of the university and the artificial de-valuing of the research and teaching conducted by graduate students. This is particularly so for graduate students in the humanities and so-called “soft” social sciences, who are most likely to fall within the base funding package, and lack the sort of departmental “top-ups” common (but still not universal) in STEM fields.

PhD students in the Anthropology Department at University of Toronto are guaranteed the baseline minimum funding package of $15,000 per year for four years, owe full tuition and fees for each year they are in the program, and must TA for every year they are in the funded cohort. During the fieldwork year, the subsequent appointment can be deferred to a later date, but that also means that because of the nature of our work as anthropologists, researchers in the field forego $8,500 of their funding guarantee in a year in which reliable financial resources are perhaps most crucial. This, while still paying roughly the same dollar value in tuition for a year in which they won’t set foot on campus.

Throughout the course of the strike, arguments made by unsympathetic parties have asserted that the low funding allocated primarily to social sciences and humanities students is reflective of the disciplines’ value as a whole. The rhetoric used by Provost Cheryl Regehr mimics this rationale: that the few disciplines stuck with the minimum funding package should be grateful they have even that. But is anthropology really so valueless? In the neoliberal university model championed by Dr. Regehr and her counterparts elsewhere, value is determined through numbers––enrollment statistics, production, and profit. A conservative estimate of the Tri-Council external awards brought into the department and university by anthropology graduate students for the 2013-2014 academic year is approximately $700,000. This number excludes any additional external awards that may have been earned by students, such as Wenner-Gren, and it also excludes money that the province provides to the university on a per-student basis.

One might expect, given the department’s apparent success with external funding, that few students would actually be making only the minimum funding package. One would be wrong. Within the Arts and Sciences Faculty, external grants earned by students are balanced by an equal reduction in guaranteed funding provided by the university. In other words, it is impossible for students to “earn” their way out of poverty. This forces even the most “successful” student-researchers to continue to take on teaching duties in order to make enough to pay tuition. Once students move into their fifth year, they are no longer guaranteed the minimum funding, may not apply to Tri-Council grants, and are no longer guaranteed a TAship to help pay for tuition. They must pay for the privilege of working full-time as researchers.

Photo: Daniel Kwan
Photo: Daniel Kwan

So where does all that money go? The University of Toronto Faculty Association reports document a phenomenon that is common in many universities–departments in the social sciences and humanities generate massive profits, which are often distributed to other departments with smaller undergraduate classes to help achieve parity. In the case of University of Toronto, each faculty must contribute 10% of its budget to the University Fund, which is then redistributed according to the “current goals and vision of the university administration”. What this means in practice is that funds from some of the departments with the least amount of funding available for their graduate students, like anthropology, are redistributed to professional programs such as business, medicine, and law in order to offset their exorbitant costs. At the same time, graduate departments across Ontario are experiencing pressure from the provincial government via university administration to increase their graduate enrollment as a means of artificially lowering unemployment statistics while increasing the provincial funding that flows into the university through graduate tuition.

The push to increase enrollment in graduate programs is a decision that, quite clearly, is not at all connected to a thorough consideration of the academic job market and the difficulties faced by convocating students upon completion of their degrees. The number of tenure track positions has not increased to match burgeoning undergraduate enrollment rates, and universities are cutting costs by using adjuncts and teaching assistants as the primary educators of undergraduate students. This underclass of academics performs 60% of the teaching hours at University of Toronto, and yet accounts for only 3.5% of the budget. If one were feeling particularly cynical, one might wonder if the push to increase graduate enrollment in defiance of a bleak academic job market isn’t a strategic move to ensure a ready supply of precarious, desperate workers willing to forgo security, fair wages, benefits, and the academic freedom of tenure in order to put their educations to use.

While university administrations are coming to see themselves more and more as CEOs of extremely large and powerful companies––and acting accordingly––imagining the corporatization of universities as an invasion of a sacred space by the vulgar shameless scrabbling of upper management suits jumping like fleas from one dog to another elides the responsibility of academics themselves for the current state of affairs.

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The Spectre Haunting University of Toronto. Photo: Sarah O’Sullivan

Universities have welcomed the opportunity to maximize profits in order to offset decreases in government funding for post-secondary institutions since the 1970s, as government funding for universities has fallen from 90% to around 57% over the past forty years. In Ontario, which has the lowest ratio of per student funding in the country, 51% of provincial university operating budgets is paid through tuition. As the university structure as a whole shifts from non-profit services subsidized largely by taxpayers to a corporate model relying on profits generated by a consumer base, so too have those in privileged management and administrative positions seen to it that their personal compensation is commensurate with salaries and benefits in the private sector. University of Toronto staff and faculty garner a significant amount of space on the Ontario Sunshine List of public sector employees making more than $100,000 per year, with the highest salaries going to an ever-increasing cadre of senior administrators. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of U of T deans on the Sunshine List increased from 78 to 98. In that five year period, the combined cost of their salaries rose from approximately $14 million to nearly $20 million, not including benefits packages or housing allotments. While Toronto is an expensive city and talent and hard work should indeed be compensated, the administrative bloat at U of T and other institutions is a slap in the face to those on lower tiers of wealth and power who are told by those same administrators that they must tighten their belts and accept austerity measures for the public good.

Therein lies the rub. Former professors turned administrators who have successfully climbed the newly corporatized ladder within the university to emerge victorious on the higher reaches of the Sunshine List, and who routinely give themselves raises and cost-of-living increases, now peer down at the masses of precarious, poverty-stricken employees beneath them and declare that there simply isn’t enough to go around. University of Toronto administration is fighting tooth and nail, with ugly, shameless tactics more at home in corporate warfare, to avoid giving its teaching assistants and course instructors a cost-of-living raise to address the serious depreciation of value of the funding package over the past seven years.

Perhaps the most offensive aspect of the strike and accompanying battle with university administrators, for many, is that the person behind U of T’s intransigence and corporate-style heartlessness is Dr. Cheryl Regehr, a professor of Social Work whose research on poverty, inequality, and stress is foundational in the field. Likewise, Vice-Provost Dr. Jill Mathus, has written extensively on the representation of strikers and the labour movement in literature (for an excellent comparison of Dr. Mathus’ published writings on labour with her pronouncements on the strike as Vice-Provost, see Oliver Lue’s impressive analysis).

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Photo: Daniel Kwan

The suspension of personal and professional values in pursuit of profit maximization is a painful affront to those still at the beginning of their academic careers, especially since those in leadership positions are expected to maintain the integrity and social justice standards of their discipline (and the academy as a whole). This, almost more than other objectively difficult aspect of the strike, continues to be a source of confusion, indignation, anger, and distress for graduate students who had formerly respected and hoped to emulate the scholarship of both administrators, and of very well remunerated faculty within their own departments, some of whom are unsupportive of their students’ push to earn a living wage and yet built their own careers around studying the very inequalities their students are fighting.

Who is responsible for halting the advance of the corporate model in the university? Ultimately, it should not be incumbent upon the university’s most precarious and impoverished workers to do it alone––we need support. We need our mentors and teachers to stand on the picket lines alongside us and demand that the value of our work––the work that universities are absolutely dependent upon––be compensated fairly so that the future’s scholars, researchers, and teachers are able to pursue their work with dignity and security. We need our faculty members to use the security and academic freedom provided through their tenure to speak out against a university culture that refers to undergraduate students as “Basic Income Units” and views their educations as a means of profit generation that can be outsourced to the lowest bidding contracted labour. Finally, we need our administrators, those fortunate few whose leadership qualities have launched them into new spheres of power and influence, to use that power to influence a better future for our university system that doesn’t require the impoverishment and depredation of an entire generation of tomorrow’s scientists, researchers, philosophers, and teachers.

Let’s get to work.

*Sarah Williams is a PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the University of Toronto.  Her research focuses on the biomedicalization of childbirth in Mexico and the grassroots midwifery movement in Yucatan. Jennifer Gibson is a second year PhD student in social-cultural anthropology at the University of Toronto, and a proud member of CUPE 3902 Unit 1. Her research looks at Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan opposition to oil and gas pipeline development in British Columbia, and in light of this strike experience she is newly intrigued by the parallels and contrasts in strategic opportunity and practice between the informal grassroots coalition organizing that happens in the field, and the formally organized labour movement in which she has recently received a quick and rather thrilling education. Twitter: @jagbsn

Ryan Anderson is an environmental and economic anthropologist. His current research focuses on the social dynamics of coastal development and conservation in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher in the department of anthropology at the University of Kentucky. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

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