Through her Spanish lilt, Raquel Zepeda's voice betrays an unmistakable bitterness. For years, the 18-year-old native of El Salvador dreamed of studying in Canada. Last year, her father dug into his retirement savings to help cover the cost. Now, the first-year psychology student at Toronto’s York University finds herself mired in one of the longest strikes in its history, and the second labour disruption in only three years. Roughly 2,400 unionized teaching assistants, graduate assistants and contract faculty members walked out on Oct. 26, demanding greater job security and continued protection from skyrocketing tuition rates. As a result, many classes were brought to a standstill. While Zepeda, whose tuition totals more than $10,000, sympathizes with their cause, she fears her year will be ruined. “I feel like I’ve been tricked,” she says. “It’s like I came here for nothing.” As the bitter standoff drags on, frustration has reached a fever pitch. By the end of last week, students had lost up to 27 teaching days, and final exams were cancelled in many courses. Hopes for a quick resolution seemed remote. Bar-
gaining had completely broken down, primarily over the issue of tuition rebates for teaching assistants. Since 1996, York has reimbursed TAs for tuition hikes— the only university in Ontario to do so. Now, it wants to end the practice. Some observers say it is succumbing to pressure from other institutions, including the University of Toronto and Hamilton’s McMaster University, where the same demand sparked strikes by TAs in the past year. The issue also figures prominendy in a potential strike by teaching assistants at Carleton University in Ottawa. The disputes all point to the tense climate on Canada’s cash-strapped campuses, and the particular difficulties faced by graduate students in the wake of large tuition increases. “Universities are being squeezed,” says Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. “And, in turn, they’re squeezing their faculty and students.” Administrators at York argue they simply cannot afford to meet the strikers’ demands.
Provincial operating grants have dropped by 31 per cent since 1992, putting Ontario at the bottom of the heap nationally in terms of postsecondary funding per capita. Phyllis Clark, vice-president of finance and administration, says that York TAs are the highest paid in the province, earning up to
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$15,000 for an academic year. Negotiators have offered to maintain tuition indexing for those already receiving it, and to cap tuition increases at two per cent for the next four years.
But teaching assistants argue that, despite a current surplus of $18 million,
York has boosted graduate tuition fees by 350 per cent in the past 10 years. Without rebates, tuition fees now account for 52 per cent of a teaching assistant’s income, and students are finding it harder to manage. The union also wants more job security for contract faculty, some of whom have been with the university for more than 15 years. Together, teaching assistants and contract professors handle about 40 per cent of the teaching load at York. Says David Camfield, a TA in social science: “Those who study and work here are concerned about the quality of education and feel it’s seriously under threat.” Graduate funding packages in Canada are far below those at top European and U.S. research universities. Last spring, a U of T task force recommended that the university provide a minimum of $ 12,000 per year to graduate students, plus the cost of tuition. However, the university rejected demands by teaching assistants for tuition rebates when they went on strike, offering other forms of financial assistance. “Most universities could not fulfil their mission without grad students,” says Axel Meisen, president of Memorial University of Newfoundland, who helped reach a tentative deal in a recent faculty strike by offering a wage increase of more than 20 per cent over three years. Graduate students also form a critical talent pool from which to draw future faculty and, says Meisen, “it is important to have good working relationships.”
In the meantime, undergraduates at York feel shortchanged. The administration has already cancelled February’s reading week and the school year could be extended into the summer. Many students who initially supported the strikers now feel caught in the middle. “I don’t think any of us believed it would go on this long,” says Morgan Passi, a first-year film and video student. “It’s really messing up a lot of people.” That anger is likely to last long after a settlement is reached. E3
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