Students at York University are postponing applications to graduate school, losing jobs and facing delayed graduation, as the toll from the strike by part-time instructors and teaching assistants at the Toronto-area school mounts.
If the strike continues for another three weeks, it will become the longest labour dispute in the history of the university, raising renewed questions about whether students should be protected from interruptions in their education.
The Liberal government introduced back-to-work legislation before the legislature was dissolved Tuesday, but was blocked from passing it by the NDP.
Undergraduates at the university are increasingly angry, and say they are being held hostage and can’t move on with their lives.
“If school doesn’t resume by next week, my graduation in June will be pushed to October,” said Stephanie Khan, a sociology student in fourth year. Ms. Khan has finished all her courses except one, which is taught by a temporary lecturer who is on the picket lines and cannot hand in her grade.
Without a BA, Ms. Khan is not eligible to start a new government job she had lined up. “One class is holding my diploma,” she said. “I wanted to start saving for a house, get going on my career. All of the students, we feel like pawns.”
York has introduced a series of measures to try to minimize the impact on undergraduate students, allowing final grades to be assessed based on partly completed work, or to have a pass-fail credit recorded rather than a grade.
Those policies are not working well in practice, students said.
“The assessed-grade option is useless unless you have a full-time professor who is working,” said Alexandria Pavelich, a sociology student who moved to York from the University of Saskatchewan to study mental health and addiction.
Nine of her 10 courses this year have been taught by part-time instructors, and the sociology program in which she is enrolled cancelled all classes early in the strike.
Without grades, Ms. Pavelich can’t apply to graduate school. She would also like to visit family in Saskatchewan but is afraid to book plane tickets in case classes resume.
“My hands are tied, I can’t do anything. I’ve been waiting for over two months,” she said.
When she does apply for a Master’s degree, it will not be at York but at McMaster or the University of Toronto, Ms. Pavelich added.
“It’s upsetting because there are scholars I want to work with at York, but seeing how they’ve been treating all students with confusion and misinformation, why would I want to support this university with my scholarship and hard work when they have no respect for us?”
Four of the last seven rounds of negotiations between CUPE 3903, the union local representing the instructors, and the university have ended in walkouts. That history and the latest dispute suggest that the structure of bargaining may need a review once the current strike ends, said Rick Waugh, the chair of the university’s board of governors.
“York has such great things going ahead, and this trying to take away the opportunity for people to get their degrees in a timely manner we fundamentally have to look at that,” Mr. Waugh said. “This cannot go on on, we cannot face this again in three years, and that should be a priority of all the participants,” he said.
Almost 230 York professors have signed a statement asking CUPE 3903 to agree to a no-strike clause in their collective agreement and to settle future differences through binding arbitration. But other faculty are supporting the strikers, with many disciplines passing motions of non-confidence in the administration.
Underfunding of postsecondary education is responsible for the recurrent labour disputes at York and elsewhere, said Peggy Sattler, the NDP’s advanced education critic.
“For almost a decade, Ontario has been at the bottom of every province in per-student funding,” Ms. Sattler said. “Institutions … for the most part, the only way they’ve been able to manage this lack of support for operating funds, is to reduce payroll costs and rely on contract faculty who are pushing back,” she said.
The labour disruption began at the beginning of March. Primarily at issue are increased job security provisions for lecturers working on temporary contracts, and the structure of funding for master’s students.
York is doing all it can to reduce the effect on students, Mr. Waugh added.
“There are no winners in this, it’s totally unfortunate,” he said.