Bottom-line Higher Education

The recent labour disputes between the support staff and administrations of various BC universities and colleges raise questions about the effective use of ever-increasing tuition costs, both within this province and Canada-wide.

The dispute at Simon Fraser University is of particular interest, due to the complete breakdown of communication between both sides.

Citing the administrations “refusal to negotiate” in their ongoing labour dispute, support staff at SFUs various campuses are inching toward escalated job action, “up to and including the possibility of a full-fledged strike,” warns their CUPE website.

The dispute—between the administration, the Teaching Support Staff Union, and Local 3338 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees—is one that stretches back two years, but which has eroded over the course of the last few weeks. It’s already led to overtime bans, the withholding of grades, some picketing, and a war of press releases.

Over the same period of time support staff at UBC, VCC, the University of Northern BC, Thompson Rivers University and Royal Roads University have also locked horns with their administrations over wage increases, job security, and inflation protection. Some have settled, some are awaiting union votes, some are still in negotiation. The battle at SFU stands apart, in that there appears to be no end in sight.

But writ large, the individual disputes all point to one thing: the bottom-line of higher education in BC, and in Canada.

While tuition rates and enrollment numbers are rising in post-secondary institutions across the country, support staff in many of those same institutions are voicing concerns over an inverse effect: wage increases that are out of step with inflation.

“We will no longer be held hostage by an administration that has enjoyed substantial wage and compensation increases,”  said CUPE Local 3338 president Lynne Fowler, “while the CUPE members who make this university work aren’t even keeping up with inflation.”

Lost in this picture—or, at best, very muddled—is any clear answer to the question of whether tuition dollars are being spent effectively.

On the whole, education is growing more and more expensive in Canada. In BC, average tuition rates rose 2 per cent over the past year. Nationally they rose 5 per cent over the same period. Additionally, more and more Canadians are enrolling in postsecondary programs, some using the economic downturn as a window to upgrade their credentials.

According to Statistics Canada, postsecondary enrollment levels increased every year between 1998 and 2008, a trend which has, according to the Center for Education Statistics, continued. BC saw a 4.5 per cent increase in full-time enrollment between 2009 and 2010 alone.

In plain terms, there are more students each year than the year previous, and they’re each paying more money than they did the year previous. At the same time, increases in the numbers of students at any given time place added pressures on support staff and in some cases require the hiring of additional workers, potentially diluting negotiable wage increases.

Making sense of this picture from the outside would be unfair, and reckless, but the question of tuition dollars and their effective use should offer a central point of entry to this dispute for anyone who pays for education in this province.

Support staff and teaching assistants are integral players in the standard of education that students receive at any school, and their arguments are of particular concern because they mean that students are, to some degree or another, either being short-changed or ripped-off.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and in the end, the middle is exactly where the students who pay tuition and receive instruction get tied up.