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Education Some classes to resume at York on Wednesday; TAs remain on strike

Pickets block the Keele Street entrance to York University in Toronto on March 3, 2015

J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

Some classes, including engineering, business and nursing, will start again at York University on Wednesday, the school's Senate leadership decided in a meeting that stretched for over seven hours, and came a day after approximately 1,000 contract instructors agreed to a deal negotiated between the university and its largest employee union.

Approximately 2,700 teaching and graduate assistants remain on strike.

In a statement, the university said other classes may resume next Monday after faculties present their plans to Senate on how courses can continue.

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"We recognize how concerning this situation is for our students, their parents and for other members of our learning community. That is why our most immediate priority is to finalize plans to allow as many students as possible to return to their studies in order to complete their terms," said a statement from Rhonda Lenton, the university's provost.

The decision to reopen some faculties, including classes at the Lassonde school of Engineering and Schulich school of business, returns only a small percentage of the 40,000 undergraduates to campus.

Both the union and the administration have stressed their positions are not far apart, but the rejection of the tentative agreement by two-thirds of the union's membership raises questions about whether the strike can end through bargaining.

"The university and the bargaining committee need to furnish something that the membership can live with," said Kevin Wilson, spokesperson for CUPE.

The last strike at York University in 2008 lasted for three months and ended with back-to-work legislation.

Key among the remaining issues for striking employees are stronger guarantees that graduate and international student tuition fees will be frozen at current levels, and an increased commitment to employment equity for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered employees.

"We realize that it's generally impossible to get everything," said Lucas McCann, the president of York's Graduate Students Association.

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The association, along with other student groups across the province, is lobbying provincial politicians this week, asking for international student fees to be lowered to domestic levels and for the province to return to covering these students' health needs through OHIP rather than through a private health insurance plan which students pay for.

Universities across the country have steeply increased international student fees which are not regulated by provincial governments. Fees for foreign students rose by 12 per cent over the last two years compared to approximately 7 per cent for domestic students.

In a letter on its website recommending that its members accept the offer, the bargaining committee said that the university's offer may well represent the best it would be able to negotiate.

"[Part] of getting a better deal is knowing when to take it," it said, warning that a rejection ran the "high risk of sliding into a protracted, weeks-long stalemate."

Three groups of employees are represented by the union, and each has a separate collective agreement. Under the deal agreed to Monday night, contract instructors will have increased job security. The university has also agreed to raise the number of jobs it will make permanent.

The acceptance of the deal by at least some union members still suggests the university is unlikely to see a repeat of 2008. The union is giving contract instructors no guidance on whether to return to the classrooms while teaching assistants continue to picket.

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"The decision to honour the picket line is a personal one," Mr. Wilson said.

Meanwhile, undergraduate students at the University of Toronto were increasingly concerned about the impact of the strike by 6,000 teaching assistants on their academic year. Students in some winter courses have had few assignments returned, but still had to decide whether to drop or continue these classes early in March, said Abdullah Shihipar, the president of the Arts and Science Students' Union.

The student group has been told of changes to course outlines to remove assignments that TAs would mark and talked to undergraduates who have been asked to take on work by their departments.

"It is our expectation that the student will be let go once the strike ends," Mr. Shihipar said, adding that ASSU counselled undergraduates against accepting such work.

Mr. Shihipar said his members want more engagement from the administration.

"People are fed up with the strike, but students are more angry with the university now. For the mediator to invite both parties to the table, both parties have to be willing and the university has clearly told its students that it's not willing," he said.

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The university has said it will return to the bargaining table "as soon as [the provincial mediator] thinks there is a basis" to do so.

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