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Analysis

Let’s Get Real: Ontario Colleges are Exploiting Teachers and Hurting Students Too

Bigger classes, heavier workloads and little preparation time for teachers have been bad for students too

Ontario’s college strike is shaping up to be a watershed moment in the fight to stop the spread of precarious work in Canada and Ontario’s shift to a “Walmart model of education.”

Management is finally returning to the table after walking away three weeks ago, forcing a faculty strike at Ontario’s 24 colleges.

What are striking faculty fighting for? Greater job security, sustainable workloads, a 50:50 ratio of full-time to contract faculty, plus a stronger voice on academic decision-making to protect the integrity of colleges.

But caught in the middle of this important labour struggle are students – many of whom are saddled with increasingly higher and higher tuition fees by college administrators.

While students are showing their support for striking faculty, contract instructors – many earning little more than minimum wage – have become a convenient scapegoat for some, namely right-leaning media outlets.

The truth is students would be first to benefit from improved working conditions and an end to what the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) calls the “ongoing exploitation of contract faculty” at Ontario colleges.

Here are a few reasons why:

 

Ontario college students are paying more and getting less

According to data from Statistics Canada, tuition fees for Ontario college students have outpaced the rate of inflation by a staggering 318% since the 1990s, leaving Ontario with the highest tuition fees in Canada.

That increase, the Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario notes, is “proportional to the decrease in government funding for postsecondary education.”

OPSEU argues colleges are using “precarious work as a tool to cut costs,” something that leaves students in an unfair situation where they’re now “paying more for reduced access to securely employed and fairly-compensated faculty who can focus on students’ needs in the short and long term.”

 

Students are taught by teachers who don’t know if they’ll have a job next semester

Meanwhile, the number of precarious contract instructors has exploded over the last decade. According to data from the College Employer Council, part-time contract instructors now make up 70% of all Ontario college teachers – growing at more than double the pace of full-time academic staff.

This shift to a precarious workforce is hurting the quality of education at Ontario colleges.  As the union representing faculty explains it, the never-ending cycle of precarious contract work forces instructors to do more work with less time:

“Most have no benefits or job security, and continue to be trapped in precarious work, year after year. These faculty are often given their course assignments at the last minute, and have little time to prepare courses or meet with students. Because their pay is so low, many have to supplement by working at multiple colleges or taking on other jobs.”

 

Fewer teachers, bigger classes

Despite students paying more for education, they’ve been receiving less in return.

According to data from OPSEU, class sizes in Ontario colleges exploded from 14.1 students in 1989 to 30.2 in 2015.

In other words, Ontario college students are now paying three times more to attend classes that are twice as big.

OPSEU


Students are learning from teachers who are overloaded with work…

Not only are students being taught by instructors who have to twice as many papers to mark, but college administrators are overloading their instructors with work.

A 2014 OPSEU report on consultations with faculty found “workload concerns were expressed with near unanimity” at Ontario’s 24 colleges, complaining management maximizes workloads and pressures instructors to work uncompensated overtime.

A 2009 Task Force on Workload found faculty “question the ability of current workload provisions to account for actual work performed” and said managers were “manipulating” time set aside for marking papers to “fit budgetary constraints.”

 

… So, teachers don’t have time for students

Overloaded with work, many instructors have less time for students – courses, lectures and assignments get designed in a rush, students receive less one-on-one contact and instructors struggle with financial and emotional stress.

As Fanshawe College professor Robert Muhlbock explains, all of this has a direct impact on the quality of education for students:

Contract faculty “may not have the time or incentive to make their courses better, because (a) they don’t know if they will be teaching these courses again, or even have a job four months from now, (b) they just don’t have the time, because they are working another job, or (c) they simply can’t afford to remain teaching part time based on their income needs … So in the end, the quality of education suffers.”

 

Colleges are cutting corners on marking assignments to cut costs

Stretched thin, some colleges are gutting “labour intensive” evaluation methods, like essays, projects and written assignments, in favour of “less time-consuming”  methods that do a bad job evaluating students. As the 2014 report notes:

“Given the current workload formula, courses with essay and project based evaluations are more labour intensive and more costly. As a result, managers seeking to cut the cost of course delivery have an incentive to encourage less time-consuming evaluation methods … This has led to particular concerns about the loss of written assignments in many courses, even though written communication is one of the key employment skills that cuts across all college programs.

 

Technology is creating heavier workloads for teachers

Another pressure on the workloads of contract instructors is their contracts don’t pay them for “increased time spent in electronic communications,” with instructors “flooded with personal communications at all hours”:

“The proliferation of email communication, and the increased expectation of rapid email turnaround, have put pressure on time allocated for student contact. The move to more online communication is presented to students and faculty as facilitating greater interaction … but in practice it leads to
a massive increase in faculty workload.”

 

Colleges are taking advantage of the good will of teachers

Despite heavy workloads and contracts that don’t compensate them for the real amount of work they do, the system relies on teachers who don’t want to see their students fail – as one faculty member puts it:

“The entire system relies on the fact that these contract faculty care too much to let their students suffer, so they end up spending significant unpaid time making sure they get the support they need.”

 

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