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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2012

Post-Secondary Education Faces Serious Attack in Ontario

Economic crisis being used as an excuse to attack both union & worker rights.

Queen’s Park, Toronto — Ontario is taking steps to centralize control over colleges & universities. [Saforrest/Wikimedia Commons]
Queen’s Park, Toronto — Ontario is taking steps to centralize control over colleges & universities. [Saforrest/Wikimedia Commons]
Post-secondary education is under “serious attack” in Ontario following a series of related actions by the province’s Liberal government that seek to centralize min­isterial control over colleges and universities and limit collective bargaining rights in the broader public sector.

“This is the most serious attack on post-secondary education of which we are aware in Canada,” wrote CAUT executive director James Turk in a recent memo to member as­sociations. “And most certainly, if this is allowed to happen in Ontario, it will become government policy in other provinces.”

The first move came June 28 with the re­lease of the provincial government’s discussion paper “Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge.” The 23-page document proposed a set of sweeping changes that include “labour-market focussed three-year degrees,” making introductory core courses fully transferable across all institutions, and a significant expansion of online course delivery — aspiring to one-third all courses.

Glen Murray, the minister of training, colleges and universities, speaking at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario on July 24, warned administrators, faculty and students to embrace, what he called, the new “reality” of globalized online teaching.

“There’s a revolution going on out there. If we have a tepid response to it, this borderless world will reach right past us,” said Mur­ray. “I hate to break this to you, that someone has taken the walls off your institution. Matter of fact, they removed the doors and windows and students can learn anywhere, any time in the world.”

Murray said the changes are necessary to reduce post-secondary education costs and improve productivity. “We have to make innovation drive productivity. We have to make the dollars in the system start working harder and the outcomes greater. What we should be doing is measuring outcomes and looking at what competencies and skills students have when they graduate,” he said.

The proposed changes are modelled on the so-called Bologna Process, under which signatory European Union nations sought to promote student and labour mobility, and to foster efficiencies and measurable outcomes across the European education sector. The Bolog­na Declaration is part of a broader trend in which universities in the EU and North America are being reimagined as having a central economic role in the production of a flexible educated workforce.

But opponents caution against uncritically embracing the Bologna Declaration. Commenting on the ministry’s discussion paper in a memo to its members, the University of Toronto Faculty Association warns the reforms “could do serious damage” in Ontario.

“Because of severe austerity, e.g., in the UK, some institutions are now offering 2 year Bachelor’s degrees, 1 year Masters, while grade inflation and the erosion of educational quality (including at some of the most prestigious universities in Europe) are perceived by many as a serious problem.”

The UTFA memo also notes “the discussion paper’s relative silence on research creates the impression that, to the extent research is upheld as worthy, it is only when translated into direct and — seemingly — commercial applications in terms of technologies and skilled worker training that research matters at all.”

The provincial ministry is cutting $30M out of base-budget funding for post-secondary education and allocating the money to three institutions that “demonstrate the greatest ability to serve as … models of advanced education in the 21st century.” To be eligible for the money, Ontario university and college presidents were given a Sept. 30 deadline to submit stra­tegic mandate agreements detailing their institution’s top three priorities.

“There hasn’t been any real consultation,” says Don Abelson, president of the University of Western Ontario Faculty Associ­ation, and who attended the Fanshawe Col­lege presentation.

“That is what’s disturbing about this process. It was basically the Glen Murray dog-and-pony show. He’s not interested in any feedback. Here’s a guy who thinks he’s Santa Claus, and will determine who’s naughty and who’s nice.”

The discussion paper made clear the new direction imagined for post-secondary education is directly connected to the Liberal government’s desire to limit compensation and pension benefits across the broader public sector. “The government expects all broader public sector partners to bargain responsibly and to consider aspects of collective agreements that en­hance productivity and facilitate transformation.”

That policy took legislative form in early September when the McGuinty government passed Bill 115, which imposed a two-year wage freeze on elementary and secondary school teachers and support workers. The move was quickly followed Sept. 26, with a Liberal plan to restrain compensation and benefits for two years for unionized public sector em­ployees, including at colleges and universities.

“The Ontario government’s ‘Protecting Public Services Act’ is an attack on public services and those who deliver them,” said CAUT’s James Turk. “It is a short-sighted and destructive approach to a financial problem. We will do everything possible to assist the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations and our member associations to mobilize against this legislation and the other harmful changes the Minister is proposing.”