Teaching assistants are back in the classroom at the University of Toronto, but the strike has led to bitterness that will make it difficult for graduate students and the administration to avoid a repeat of the four-week dispute in the future.
"Right now, there is little desire to work together with the administration," said Ryan Culpepper, the vice-chair of the locals that were on strike. "They've poisoned the relationship with us through this round of bargaining."
University of Toronto president Meric Gertler was more conciliatory, but also said that the university will wait to see the results of binding arbitration before making further decisions on how the school funds graduate students, the issue at the heart of negotiations.
"I do think we have common cause… I started [my term] with a call for action to increase the funding per student to all institutions in Ontario, but particularly to a place like ours. I would certainly welcome some kind of concerted effort," he said.
The strike, which began in late February, came to an end Friday, after teaching assistants and course instructors voted overwhelmingly to accept a university proposal to resolve the dispute through binding arbitration. It will now be up to an arbitrator to find a resolution to a battle that stretches far beyond the past 10 months of bargaining. If that solution leaves graduate students unsatisfied, a repeat of this month could be in the cards, with undergrads again caught in the middle.
No one wants to see that. "I would say there is renewed motivation in my office, and I would say across the university, to make real progress on [graduate funding]," Dr. Gertler said.
The seeds of the university's discontent were sown during the last round of bargaining four years ago. That was when the university administration agreed to talk to graduate students and union reps about changing how the school supported its approximately 16,000 master's and doctoral candidates. Since 2001, U of T has guaranteed PhDs an annual income – made up of salaries for teaching and research, and a stipend.
Many graduates say the minimum $15,000 in income falls far short of what they need to live in Toronto. The university has said that income level is appropriate for teaching assistants who are full-time students and part-time workers. TAs dispute that characterization.
"There are plenty of jurisdictions, like Sweden, or other European countries, where graduate students, who are doing very similar work to what graduate students are doing here in Ontario, are being treated like full employees," said Jason Dumelie, who was was one of the students involved in the discussions about graduate funding, and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.
When the administration refused to increase the amount in the funding package, the grad-student representatives resigned from the committee that was studying the issue. A year later, the same disagreement led to the strike.
The school's president says that in some ways, U of T agrees with the union. If the school is to remain in the top 20 universities in the influential Times Higher Education World University Rankings, it has to court the world's best graduate students. The problem is that top U.S. universities have, on average, seven times more money per student, Dr. Gertler said.
"I've been saying for some time that this place manages to defy gravity, in spite of the relative scarcity of funds," he said.
However the university and its graduate students resolve this high-level battle, undergraduates just want to have a shot at going to grad school.
Early this week, students were told they could receive credit for courses without getting a mark on their transcripts. Many say that while the announcement made them less worried about how badly they will do on final exams or essays, grad and professional programs want to see a numerical grade.
"You can't apply for veterinary medicine like that. Just have them believe, what? I'm really good?" said Emma, a third-year biology student.
Like all universities, U of T also has an increasing number of older, mature students who say they can't afford to take another credit.
"The TAs are a valuable resource in interpreting knowledge that is sometimes unclear in these huge lecture halls. To do that on your own, while taking care of a child, for example, is very hard," said Tiana Milatovic, a student rep at Woodsworth College, where most mature students enroll.
Dr. Gertler says that it's important to remember that the U of T does not have a history of labour disruptions: "We've done pretty well at this. This is our first strike in 15 years."
Whether the next one will come sooner than that remains to be seen.