Opinion Column


Issues run deeper than strike at Fleming and other Ontario colleges

Brian Desbiens is a former president of Fleming College

By Brian Desbiens

Fleming College. CLIFFORD SKARSTEDT/PETERBOROUGH EXAMINER/Postmedia Network file photo

Fleming College. CLIFFORD SKARSTEDT/PETERBOROUGH EXAMINER/Postmedia Network file photo

It has been my experience being part of the college system for decades that a strike is bad for everyone, especially for students but also for the staff. When I arrived as President in my first year 1989 there was a college strike and I will never forget my children going to the end of the driveway at the farmhouse at the college to catch their school bus. Faculty were picketing the entrance to our home and my children had little understanding of what was going on. Fortunately here at Sir Sandford Fleming our faculty were very understanding and fed them lots of their donuts.

But what is driving this latest strike?

Let me begin with an example from the far side of the world that I learned about at the world conference on Online and Distant Education in Toronto last week. The government of South Africa has recently changed their entrance policy to online courses for applicants wanting to take their Teacher Education Program. They now require any students seeking admission to the online course to have a computer and be computer literate. It sounds reasonable but has led to a decline of over 50 per cent in applications because the poor outside of the large cities do not have access or familiarity with computers. The very people who need the access are being blocked by government policy.

So how does this apply to our present strike in our colleges here in Ontario?

The three main issues on the table I have learned from the coverage are: wages, academic freedom, which means faculty having control over academic policy and decision making, and the ratio of full-time faculty teaching versus part-time.

I believe government policy is at play in all three of these areas.

First regarding wages. The offer on the table is supposedly close to that being offered and accepted by other public sector employees. So it would seem reasonable. So why have the colleges not moved any further? Well in the background of this situation is another government decision, Bill 148- Equal Pay for Equal Work. The government says that they want this bill to pass but the colleges have said that it would cost them up to $300,000,000 to implement if passed as is. This is a cost that if it has to be incurred would devastate the colleges and lead to massive layoffs and program suspensions.

The second issue is that of academic freedom, or faculty having the power to control academic decisions. This on the surface also looks like a reasonable request. But the strength of the colleges is their ability to adapt to the marketplace. They are expected to offer relevant programs so that students can obtain jobs readily and meet employer and career expectations. The government has in place accountability measures to ensure colleges stay relevant. The need to stay flexible is critical. But this does not mean that faculty should not be fully engaged in the processes of change so as to ensure quality assurance and teaching excellence.

The third issue relates to the number of part-time faculty that the college system utilizes versus full time. This is not a new issue. It actually was the basis of the strike back in 1989 and has been a chronic problem. What has happened is that the college system has over the past two decades doubled in size while the number of full time faculty positions has increase marginally.

Approximately 1,000 new full-time and partial-load faculty positions have been added since 2010. Another words the system has mainly grown through the use of part time teachers. Why has this happened? It is also true that the basic funding level given to the colleges is the lowest per student in the country. I know no college person who would not want to have a higher ratio but the present level of funding does not allow for this.

When I was at the college if our programs had over 60 per cent of our teaching hours taught by full time we lost money on the program and put that program in jeopardy. I actually thought that we should have at least 40 per cent of our teaching hours from part time so that we had people working in the field teaching our students and helping bridge to real world experiences. But I also felt we should have up to 60 per cent of the students hours taught by our full time faculty so that we had continuity of leadership in the delivery of our programs. But simply put it is the underfunding of the system that is the overriding policy of the government that has put the system at odds. Presently full-time faculty are responsible for 49% of all teaching contact hours; partial-load faculty are responsible for 22 per cent of all teaching contact hours; and part-time and sessional faculty are responsible for 29 per cent of all teaching contact hours.

The fourth policy issue that needs to be addressed by the government is that central bargaining has not and does not work. It leads to a dysfunctional system where the worst working relationships across the province prevail at the bargaining table. It also places every student in the province at risk. There have been heroic efforts to make it work but if you look at the number of strikes that we have had and the lack of resolution of some of the most basic labour relations issues you have to see that it needs to change. If we can modernize NAFTA after 25 years government certainly should ask itself how we must change the college system to better serve our students, staff and society.

So when I hear the Minister of Advance Training say she wants the parties to get back at the table and stop this disruption it truly upsets me because I know that both the union and management are working in a context that creates conflict. There will always be differences that need to be worked out, but if you do not have the means to do so because of policy derived beyond your control, is it reasonable to expect fare resolutions.

So what are you the members of the government going to do about this?

First off if you truly care about students then we need a change in our bargaining system. I do not think they should ever be used as pawns this way. I think the government should seriously look at one of two bargaining processes. Either local bargaining in which case only a few at the local level will be affected. Or declare education an essential service and require Binding Arbitration. This would remove the detrimental effects on students who are held hostage in the present system.

Second the government should put a price tag on their policy recommendations. If Bill 148 is to be the policy of the land then fund its costs to institutions like the colleges. If they truly want employment equity then help the colleges address the part-time full-time issue by providing sufficient resources to do so.

If the province cannot afford its policies then say so and develop a strategy to move toward these aspirational goals. But leaving the parties in a system to duke it out seems quite unseemly and unfair.

Brian Desbiens is the past president of Sir Sandford Fleming College. His column appears monthly.