Our Entire Higher Education System Must Change, Advocate, 04/03/2015

My old friend The MC and his husband CP Style are out on strike right now, as graduate students and teaching assistants at the University of Toronto. The same group at York University is also on strike. I was out on a similar strike in 2009. The central issue of the two current TA strikes is wages: these vitally important employees of the university, without whom their massive classes could never run properly, are not paid enough to live, given the expenses of Toronto. 

Incremental change is inadequate to repair a
fundamentally broken system.
This is a vitally important issue, and I wish the TAs at York and Toronto all the best. But the subject matters of their negotiations, salaries and benefits for graduate students working as TAs are only small potatoes compared to the deepest structural problems that the modern university system faces.

It’s all too easy to take the current system for granted because, on the surface, it appears that our universities have become democratized. Graduate school and the professoriat was once considered a path only for the elite, the already rich. Now, graduate education and the academic ranks are open ostensibly to anyone who put in the work and dedication. Take an even longer view, and you can see universities across North America embracing anti-racism, leaving their sordid anti-Semitic pasts behind. 

But the nominal democratization of graduate school and professorships obscures the larger truth that graduate programs have become a labour source on which universities can cut costs on one of their essential purposes: education. 

The last generation has seen universities across the continent expand their graduate programs. Universities with prestige no more significant than the scale of their state or their region produce multiple doctoral graduates every year in all disciplines of both the hard sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Most of these doctoral programs train their students only for careers as academic teachers and researchers, presuming that this is all you can do with such a degree. 

This would be reasonable if quality faculty positions were still opening at a pace that kept up with doctoral graduation rates. But those positions are rare and growing more scarce. Yet universities continue to maintain or expand graduate program enrolment, enculturing people to expect that the university sector is the only place for them, when there are in fact not nearly enough places. 

As well, those places are usually filled by graduates from the same small club of elite, prestigious universities who, when we were establishing these prestige norms, were the only ones that even had doctoral programs at all.

Graduate student labour, the teaching training through TA work that is part of all such programs, has become an easy crutch. Even in classes of 500 or more, students will still get the hands-on instruction that defines a quality education, but they will get it in a tutorial session with a teaching assistant instead of the faculty member. Graduate student labour makes for a wonderful enabler of massive faculty cuts. 

Here’s some basic salary math. Take a group of 400 students. Divide them into 20 groups of 20 students, each of which is taught by a junior faculty member. Make a very conservative estimate of the instructor’s salary as $50,000. Leave benefits out of the conversation for the sake of simplicity.* That group of 400 students costs $1-million to teach.

* But certainly don’t leave them out of the negotiations, of course. ;)

In contrast, take that group of 400 students and put them in a single class, overseen by a single faculty member making a salary of $50,000. Divide the class into 20 tutorial sections of 20 students, where they dive into the meat of the course, since a lecture to 400 people can’t necessarily get into the most complex conceptual territory. At University of Toronto, TAs are paid $17,000 for the year. Now, our group of 400 students costs $390,000 to teach.

The monetary cost saved is enormous, but the sector now has a labour explosion on its hands. A university saves a ton of money on faculty labour costs because it continually drafts cohorts of trainee academics to be the on-the-ground instructors. The norms of underpaying graduate labourers have persisted from the days when doctorates were accessible only to the elite; these are students, and any financial remuneration is a reward, not actual compensation for work.**

** Of course, this isn’t how everyone actually feels on an individual level. When I was on strike in 2009, many of my department’s professors supported our union’s action, and they always considered our TA salaries payment in exchange for work. I’m describing a broad set of social habits and unconscious presumptions that obscure material injustices.

So more universities take on more graduate students as the machinery that enables enormous class sizes to provide savings on labour costs. These students are trained only to work in the university system, but enter the faculty workforce in an economic environment where there is virtually no demand for this explosion of academic labour. Departments hire fewer faculty because their growing influx of graduate students provides a cheaper source of labour.

It’s a system that produces an enormous surplus of labour as a by-product of the general framework that deflates its own demand for labour. This is the real economic crisis of the university sector, a totally schizophrenic relation of supply and demand of its labour. Only a complete overhaul will end its fundamentally insane character.

Kick ass, The MC, CP Style, and everyone else on strike action at University of Toronto and York.

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