Hundreds of thousands of college students across Ontario could be shut out of their classrooms Monday morning if their schools and the union representing instructors do not hammer out a deal this weekend to avoid a strike.
Negotiations between the colleges and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union began in July but reached an impasse in the past week. At issue are demands by the union to discuss shared governance of colleges and to replace part-time positions with full-time jobs.
"We are prepared to make significant moves to come to the table and have those conversations," said JP Hornick, chair of OPSEU's bargaining team for the college instructors.
But discussions on Friday were not successful.
"The union is only tinkering with its proposals and not making the substantive changes needed to get a deal," said Sonia Del Missier, chair of the colleges' bargaining team.
Almost 70 per cent of college professors had voted in favour of a strike in September. Just over 234,000 full-time and almost 100,000 part-time students attend the province's colleges.
The College Employer Council, which bargains for all the colleges in Ontario, has offered to extend the current contract and raise wages by 7.75 per cent over four years, with a cap on maximum salaries of $115,378.
But the colleges are not budging on two demands. One of the most contentious is the union's insistence that faculty must have a greater say in the governance of colleges. The union wants to begin discussions that would lead to the creation of senates, in which faculty make up a majority of the governing body. Senates are standard at universities where they operate alongside boards of governors. But in the college sector, only Sheridan College has such a body – Sheridan is working toward becoming a university by 2020.
Senates do not belong in the college sector, the schools say.
"It is not appropriate for one group to have power and control over the core business of your institution," said Don Sinclair, the CEO of the College Employer Council. "Even universities are being asked to be more responsive. And they can't, they have to work through their senates – we can't afford to be that slow," Mr. Sinclair said.
Another difficult issue has been the demand by OPSEU to convert part-time positions into full-time jobs. The union and the colleges have disagreed on the percentage of faculty in each category. But the union wants to see half of teaching staff become full-time.
"It's impossible to respond to your students, to provide reference letters, to be able to concentrate on the classroom when you're thinking about whether you are going to be able to pay your rent," Ms. Hornick said. "Similarly, many [instructors] work at two or three colleges at the same time and are scrambling to do the best they can with limited resources."
Agreeing to a set percentage of faculty in each category would make it difficult for colleges to balance their budgets, Mr. Sinclair countered.
Students have been told to check their school's website before heading to classes Monday morning. The possibility of a strike occurring mid-term is leading to worries that some courses could be at risk.
"Students are in the middle of a standoff," said Joel Willett, the president of the College Student Alliance, which represents students at Ontario's 24 colleges. "We need them to continue their discussions so that a strike does not happen, and that if it does happen, it's a short one," he said.
Strikes are rare in the college sector, and they have never led to students losing their year. Each of the three strikes over the colleges' 50-year history lasted about 20 days. Unlike university faculty associations who negotiate separate agreements with each university, bargaining for college instructors is provincewide.
"We know both parties have the best interests of students in mind," said Tanya Blazina, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development.
Negotiations are occurring against a background of questions about the financial health of Ontario's college sector.
A recent report from Deloitte said the sector is facing a $160-million shortfall in their budgets to support students' mental health. And a report earlier this year from PricewaterhouseCoopers found that within eight years, the sector will be looking at a $1.9-billion shortfall and must continue to rely on part-time instructors as part of an effort to control costs. That report was commissioned by the colleges.