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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2015

We’re all in this together

By Robin Vose
As races shape up for the 2015 federal election, we need to ensure the well-being of our universities and colleges remains an important focus of political discussion. The contributions of the sector’s educators and researchers are undeniably essential for the health and future prospects of society; without a strong post-secondary sector it’s simply not possible for a modern society to thrive. This point will be familiar to CAUT members but we must continue to bring it to the fore over the coming months of policy debate and campaigning, as the outcome of this year’s political contest will undoubtedly impact the future of our academic communities for generations to come.

No community exists in a vacuum, however, and academic staff are particularly well situated to appreciate just how inextricably linked our fortunes are to those of our fellow citizens. Universities contribute to, sustain and participate in the broader community, but they are also dependent on reciprocal contributions, sustenance and participation from the broader community for their own health and survival. Policies that affect the lives of our students, their co-workers and their families, can impact everyone in the academic community. It is essential these policies — even if at first glance somewhat tangential to the immediate concerns of university and college life — be seriously considered as we debate the future directions we want our country to take.

One obvious example of how government policy impacts both academics and the wider community is the all-too-familiar crisis of hyper-inflated tuition fees and the resulting debt burdens faced by so many of our students. We know the financial, social and psychological damage these inflict over both the short and long term, especially on the most vulnerable, and we see the tragic impact they have had on otherwise promising students’ academic performance over the years. What we don’t know is how many potential students are precluded from considering post-secondary education in the first place, because of limited financial means. The barriers of inequality plaguing Aboriginal peoples’ post-secondary access are particularly daunting, and the resulting impoverishment of our universities and colleges is a national disgrace.

The complex problem of accessibility is just part of a range of interrelated issues that urgently require policy reform from all levels of government. A lack of decent and affordable child care impacts working parents from all social classes, but significantly more acutely impacts those attempting to enter a university or college program — often in a new city or neighbourhood where they have no prior connections, no support network and no opportunity to get placed on an early waiting list.

Cuts to Employment Insurance and vete­rans’ benefits, along with the lack of a minimum viable wage that especially affects students and families struggling to pay for post-secondary education by means of part-time employment, are equally devastating. And what awaits graduates at the end of these struggles? If attacks on labour laws and unions are allowed to continue, for too many it’s a prospect of permanent precarity, working in contractually-limited positions that lack essential health or pension benefits. Those graduates will be hard pressed to provide any support for their children’s own goals for post-secondary education, and again our academic communities will be much poorer as a result.

As academics we tend to focus on the immediate and pressing concerns of our own workplaces — on how to properly educate students and conduct high-level research, amid the ever-increasing impositions of austerity regimes and managerial overreach. But when our students are unable to properly learn, or some shut out because of government refusal to address societal problems of high tuition fees, debt, child care shortfalls and generalized poverty, we all feel the results.

Those of us who are lucky enough to have enjoyed affordable access to higher education in the past, and currently enjoy more-or-less secure employment, cannot afford to ignore the fact that so many of our neighbours — including our academic colleagues whose contract positions may not provide a living wage, benefits or pensions — are unlikely to be able to send their children to universities and colleges in the future. Major reforms will be necessary to reverse this situation, and until they are forthcoming we will continue to witness a degradation in our communities; a degradation that inevitably impacts the world of post-secondary education as well.

We are all in this together. The 2015 election will in large part test just how deeply we understand that, and how willing we are to stand in solidarity with students, with fellow workers, with families, and with other members of our communities writ large — demanding a better common future that benefits us all.