As the faculty strike at Ontario's colleges enters its third week, Premier Kathleen Wynne said she would continue to press both sides to return to the bargaining table, but would not rule out back-to-work legislation.

At a news conference Monday morning, Wynne was asked whether she would legislate staff back to work as students fear losing their semester.

Without giving a yes or no answer, she appeared to leave the door open by replying: "You never rule anything out in this business, but we really would like to see the agreement at the table."

Asked about her message to worried students, Wynne said that she and Deb Matthews, minister of advanced education and skills development, don't want to see students lose their term.

"My expectation and the minister's expectation is that both sides of this negotiation will find a way to get back to the table to re-engage, because that's where the agreement has to be forged," Wynne said.

Both the premier and Matthews repeated those points in daily question period at Queen's Park Monday amid heckling by opposition MPPs.

"Why is there no urgency to this," asked Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown. "Why has the premier done nothing to get both sides back to the table?"

Wynne replied that Matthews has been "in conversation" with representatives for both sides to urge them to get back to the bargaining table.

When Brown pressed for the premier and minister to do more, Matthews called the strike situation "troubling" before opposition MPPs began heckling her.

The Speaker stopped the proceedings for several moments before warning MPPs that, "When I stand, you stop."

Short-term contracts a major issue

Some 12,000 college faculty, which includes professors, instructors, counsellors and librarians, walked off the job on Oct. 15, affecting about 500,000 students. The main demands of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) focus on job security and academic freedom, including more full-time jobs.

Earlier Monday, college faculty protested outside a conference on campus mental health to bring attention to the fact that right now, there are no counsellors working on campus amid the strike.

RM Kennedy, chair of the OPSEU college faculty division, told CBC Toronto that a key negotiating point is to increase the number of counsellors offering mental health services to students. He said the union would like to see a reduced caseload for some overworked counsellors, as well as the addition of counsellors at schools that don't have any.

RM Kennedy

RM Kennedy, chair of the OPSEU college faculty division, said mental-health counsellors and short-term staff contracts are major issues at the bargaining table. (Aizick Grimman/CBC)

"Students often have to wait a very long time to get the mental health support they need," Kennedy said as college staff picketed behind him.

Another major bargaining issue, Kennedy said, is the fact that "an absolutely astounding" 75 per cent of faculty are employed on short-term contracts.

"That's simply not viable, it's not feasible," Kennedy said. "There's no operating model in the world that can operate a quality service and a quality product when 75 per cent of the workforce is on short-term contract."

He said the union would like to see more resources put to the "front lines" of the education system: classrooms, hiring full-time instructors and more counsellors and other efforts to reduce class sizes.

The picketers had hoped that Matthews would talk to them as she left the conference, but she did not.

"We think that the minister of advanced education has a very important role to play in resolving this crisis," Kennedy said.

OPSEU strike

College faculty picket outside a conference on campus mental health. (Aizick Grimman/CBC)