At the time of writing (Thursday PM), Teaching Assistant Unions at both the University of Toronto and York University are on strike, as is the union representing sessionals at York. Since Toronto is indeed “The Centre of the Universe”, I’m sure everyone across the country is just riveted by this news. At the risk of irritating those readers still further, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts on the matter.
1) A lot of people seem to be wondering “why are we relying so much on adjunct labour these days?” The quick answer is “because profs are spending more time researching and less time teaching than they used to”; sessionals are an emergent property of a system that gets paid to teach, but prefers to spend money on research. See also this recent piece on the economics of sessionals.
2) It’s for this reason that I’m finding the OCUFA campaign on sessionals – “WeTeachOntario” – mindbogglingly un-self-aware. It’s great to support sessionals, of course, but the utter lack of any kind of recognition that full-time faculty’s well-above-inflation pay settlements, and their perennial push to research more and teach less are significant contributing factors to the problem is simply amazing.
3) The University of Waterloo’s Emmett Macfarlane wrote a very good piece on the TA strike on the Policy Options blog, which summed up a lot of my feelings about the strikes. The issue pretty clearly isn’t about what students get paid for their labour as TAs (which at over $40/hr is pretty good), but what they receive overall (i.e. labour plus scholarship), which they feel is inadequate. And yet it’s the labour tool they are using to address the problem, which is… problematic.
4) On the issue of whether U of T grad students are, as they frequently claim, “living below the poverty level”: The union keeps using a figure of $23,000 as the Toronto poverty level, which is in fact the pre-tax low-income cut off for large cities. The post-tax figure – which is the more accurate comparison, since TA labour income is below the level at which income gets taxed and scholarships are tax-free up to $10K – is $19,000. Or $1,583/month. The base TA/grad package is $15K for 8 months or $1,875/month. So the veracity of the claim seems to rest on the assumption that grad students get no outside income in those other 4 months. My guess is that’s not for the most part true – they’ll either take on extra work or have an outside scholarship.
5) What doctoral students are really asking for is that they be treated as employees, not just for their teaching duties but also for the entirety of their academic labour. And that’s not crazy: in much of Europe, doctoral students are in fact university employees, and reasonably well paid. There’s nothing to stop a university doing that here: in fact, some might argue that it would substantially improve a university’s ability to recruit graduate students.
The problem – as always – is money: universities don’t want to make the sacrifices to other aspects of the university budget (including, obviously, academic and staff pay) to make this work. One possible compromise would be to turn PhD students into employees, but accept far fewer of them; but here you’d run into the problem of Arts professors having to backfill by doing more teaching themselves, and Science professors going bananas because now who’s going to run the labs?
To which, with some justification, doctoral students might simply say: Exactly. We’re worth more than you think. And I’d have a fair bit of sympathy with that.
Have a good weekend.