Zane Schwartz is a fourth-year student at the University of Toronto. He was named one of Canada's Top 20 under 20.
Teaching Assistants at York University and the University of Toronto are on strike. At first glance these seem like classic labour disputes, but they are a warning of how fundamentally flawed the Canadian university system has become.
At U of T, the administration's position is, to put it mildly, ridiculous.
Graduate students at U of T receive a minimum funding package of $15,000 a year. This amount hasn't increased since 2008, and it's well below the $19,307 poverty line for a single adult living in Toronto. After 12 months of negotiation the university hasn't budged – it's still offering $15,000.
Graduate students currently make $42.05 an hour but are limited to 205 hours a year. U of T has offered to pay $43.97 an hour but will cap the number of hours at 180 starting September 2017. So instead of making $8,965.06 graduate students will actually make $8,231.18 – which is $733.88 less.
Absurdly, they will still have to do the same amount of work. Papers are not magically going to take less time to mark and class times will not suddenly run 45 minutes instead of an hour. If anything, Teaching Assistants will likely have more work to do two years from now, as classes and tutorials get bigger every year.
In any event, talking about TAs hourly wage is deeply misleading. TAs actually work a lot more than 210 hours a year and U of T knows this. By focusing on the increase in the hourly wage they can distract from the real issue at hand: that the majority of graduate students will make the same amount of money and some actually face a pay cut.
What is surprising is how many media outlets are repeating without analysis U of T's claim that it's offering a raise. Again: U of T is offering a $733.88 pay cut.
An increase in the hourly wage will make no difference for the vast majority of TAs, as their overall funding will remain at $15,000 a year. Whether they're making $42.05 an hour or $43.97 the total money they get from U of T remains $15,000. The handful who do extra work, such as those lucky enough to have a second Teaching Assistant position, will make $733.88 less than they would under the current agreement. And it's not like they can get another job as many graduate students are prohibited from taking outside work and all are expected to do research full time.
What's happening at U of T and York is symptomatic of a larger problem across Canada. Underpaid part-time staff teach a majority of undergraduates in Canada. For example, at U of T contract faculty and teaching assistants do 60 per cent of the teaching but make up 3.5 per cent of the budget. This is not an isolated problem. According to one study, the number of contract faculty in Ontario increased 87 per cent in between 2000 and 2014.
While contract faculty and teaching assistants are doing more of the teaching nationwide, their salaries and job security have not changed. They have no job security. Contract faculty do not enjoy academic freedom protections. No matter how hard working someone is, if they're worried about feeding their families they're going to be distracted in the classroom.
It's not even in U of T's best interest to pay so little. U of T is losing out on top talent every year to similarly-ranked schools in the United States that offer $5,000 or even $10,000 more a year. U of T regularly boasts about being the top school in the country, but it won't stay that way if the best graduate students choose not to come here.
Paying the people who do the majority of teaching a salary that is above the poverty line won't solve all the problems in academia, but it sure would be a good place to start.