Privatization and cutbacks are nothing new on Canadian college and university campuses. But this fall the fightback is more urgent than ever, as CUPE members rush to avert a campus privatization explosion.
Ground zero is Ontario, where the Conservative government has opened the door for private universities. If the Tories have their way, private businesses will be allowed to grant degrees for the first time in Canada.
“For years the government’s tried to force campuses into privatization and contracting out by rationing and slashing the funds they get,” says Kirk Sprague, chair of CUPE Ontario’s University Workers’ Coordinating Committee. He also points to the province’s SuperBuild fund, which forces public private partnerships on cash-starved public institutions.
“Obviously that wasn’t moving fast enough for them, and we were throwing up too many roadblocks. So they’re taking a more direct approach,” says Sprague, a pest control operator at the University of Guelph and a member of CUPE 1334.
He says with private universities tuition fees will go up, access will go down and accountability will go out the window. If private universities are allowed to set up shop in the province, they will drain scarce public funds and resources, creating one education system for the wealthy, and another for everyone else.
“You know where the government’s heading – and it isn’t to put money back into the public system,” says Sprague.
Having seen the writing on the wall, the province’s university workers are resisting the Ontario government’s plans for private universities. And they’re gearing up for the fight of their lives.
“We need to fight private universities tooth and nail. Because under the rules of NAFTA, once private universities get in, that’s it. Game over for public education,” says Brock University teaching assistant Mike Boland, president of CUPE 4207.
Across the province and across the country, CUPE post-secondary workers are confronting cutbacks and privatization.
In Nova Scotia, the attack is happening on all fronts, including universities.
“The Hamm government seems to have tunnel vision, and they’re privatization bound,” says CUPE 3912 president Barbara Moore. Her local, which is in bargaining, represents part-time instructors at Saint Mary’s, Mount Saint Vincent and Dalhousie universities, as well as Dalhousie teaching assistants.
Moore says the corporate influence is everywhere. At Dalhousie, a food court that used to be a bustling hub of student life is a wasteland at night, thanks to the fast food outlets that replaced university-run food services. “The food is so crappy the outlets aren’t generating enough traffic – or profits. So they close early, and people go elsewhere.”
At Saint Mary’s the new business school is housed in a building paid for and bearing the name of the Sobey’s grocery chain. And the university’s new president is involved with a right-wing think tank called the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. “We can see the privatization ideology creeping in at the highest levels,” she says.
Members of Moore’s local are fighting to keep their summer courses, which the employer is handing to retired full-time faculty as a bonus for taking early buyouts.
“We’re being played as part of a cheap labour game, and the students suffer,” says Moore. Many members of her local work at several institutions to earn enough to get by, and count on the summer courses as part of their income.
Low wages are an issue for university workers in Saint Catharines, Ontario. The Brock University teaching assistants and part-time instructors got a first contract in June 1999, but they’re fighting an uphill battle.
“The university sees us as a transient work force, and they show it by paying among the lowest wages in the province, and by doing everything they can to keep people from getting tenure,” says Boland.
At York University, CUPE members were forced to strike to fight low wages and creeping corporatization says sociology teaching assistant and CUPE 3903 member James Beaton.
“CUPE 3903 entered bargaining ready to challenge the corporate mindset of York management. The new corporate model of the university is all about job insecurity, pressure to reduce wages and benefits and privatization,” says Beaton.
Beaton is studying industry-university partnerships and their effects on teaching and research as well as opposition to this trend. He says the corporate campus means increased use of “flexible” part-time and contract faculty, shrinking research and teaching dollars going to “industry-relevant” programs that emphasize technology and business at the expense of the arts and social sciences.
Boland also points to the commercialization of knowledge and universities setting up large, expensive patent offices. “Once you can’t share information and discoveries between departments or disciplines, it’s a huge ‘in’ for further corporate takeover.”
Higher tuition fees are another result of cutbacks and corporatization, leaving many students struggling to pay the rent – let alone do their academic work. Introducing summer fees was a devastating blow to York graduate students.
“During the summer, graduate student funding decreases so students are basically working just to pay their tuition. Graduate summer funding doesn’t meet basic living needs so many students take part-time jobs on top of their university work. So they have less time to research and publish – activities that are essential for future academic employment,” says Beaton.
Now, his local is fighting to keep tuition protection for all its members – a concession that’s being pushed by management.
“It seems York administration hopes that by bargaining every year, the local will become fatigued and demobilized and may be unable to resist concessions. However, nothing’s further from the truth. Every year the local learns new resistance and mobilizing strategies.
“Clearly management wants to build a university that emphasizes private interests rather than the public good and relies upon cheap and insecure labour. CUPE 3903 is resisting these trends and building a better university at York,” says Beaton.