British Columbia·Analysis

University strikes and why unions are storming the ivory towers

Striking profs at UNBC are among faculty at three major B.C. universities to unionize within the past year. Have budget cuts and a focus on getting students ready for the job market brought labour strife into the ivory towers?

B.C. professors unionize against backdrop of budget cuts and so-called 'corporatization' of universities

Faculty associations at three major B.C. universities have unionized in the past year as post-secondary institutions fight for funds and students. (Erik Hill/The Associated Press)

Sarah Blawatt's life is in limbo.

Midway through a Master's degree in gender studies at the University of Northern B.C., the 28-year-old has to be out of Prince George and back in Vancouver by May. 

But with her professors picketing, Blawatt says she has no idea when the semester will actually end. She's not complaining.

"I would like to wind up teaching higher education myself," she says. "I think that the things that they're asking for — they're entitled to."​

Academics vs business

These are strange days at B.C.'s universities.

Within the last year, faculty at UNBC, Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria have all voted to unionize. UNBC is the first campus in the province to face a strike. 

The battle in Prince George has come down to a wage gap, but people on both sides of the argument say bigger issues are also at play: shrinking budgets for post-secondary institutions, reliance on corporate cash, and a debate about the very nature and purpose of Canadian universities.

"We seem to have adopted the general view that the university is not so much an academic place — quiet and isolated from the great pressures of society —  as it is a kind of business," said Bill Bruneau, a University of B.C. emeritus professor of educational studies.

"It's therefore subject to some of the same rules and some of the same pressures that a large or medium-sized business would be."

Bit players

The bulk of faculty associations across the country are now unionized. 

As a former president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, Bruneau believes the trend is a reaction to the so-called "corporatization' of universities.

Faculty and staff at the University of Northern B.C. are on strike. The outstanding issue is a wage gap. (B.C. Government)

B.C.'s latest budget saw a reduction in total operating grants for post-secondary institutions from $1.846 billion to $1.832 billion.

The drop is part of a three-year government plan to reduce funding for colleges and universities by $50 million.

Despite the cuts, the government argues that it has sunk billions into the province's aging post secondary capital infrastructure.

Bruneau says reduced funding has forced university administrations to concentrate on attracting money from business and donors by keeping rankings high, publishing groundbreaking research and running a tight financial ship.

And in a parallel to private industry, it has also meant an increased reliance on casual labour.

In the university context, that means sessional instructors: lower-paid, untenured graduate students or newly minted professors who teach an estimated 30 per cent of courses at some Canadian universities, according to the Confederation of Faculty Associations of B.C.

"Academics feel that they're no longer really a part of this," Bruneau said. "They're just bit players in a very large system."

Lack of leverage?

UVic associate professor Martin Farnham believes unionization won't help his colleagues achieve their goals. The economist says university instructors have no leverage with the taxpayers who send their kids to university.

"They're paying a lot of money to the universities to get their kids educated, and if we go on strike, there's going to be virtually zero public sympathy for us," he said.

"I certainly share the view that there are some problems with how universities are being administered. I just don't think that going on strike is going to give us any kind of leverage over that."

Others have a bigger issue with the imposition of collective bargaining on institutions forged in the crucible of independent thought.

In a recent article in University Affairs, University of Saskatchewan emeritus president Peter MacKinnon argues the two are fundamentally at odds.

"There is irony in the fact that institutions that prize their autonomy would adopt an external model that attenuates their freedom," MacKinnon writes.

"Collective bargaining is about working out an employment contract. It is not about identifying the best interests of the university."

What is the purpose of a university?

Concerns about corporatization go beyond the nuts and bolts of running a university.

In its most recent service plan, the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education defines its mission as ensuring B.C. has "skilled workers needed to capitalize on economic opportunities and meet the labour market needs of the province."

Faculty say university is about much more than getting qualifications - and supplying the country with a skilled workforce. (Shutterstock)

UNBC faculty association president Jacqueline Holler says that's a narrow view.

"Increasingly, we think of a university as a place where individual students go to get a qualification that will enable them to earn money in the workforce," she said. 

"That's part of what universities do, but it's really a tiny part."

Holler says part of a university's mandate should be to "create citizenry." 

Bruneau emphasizes the instruction of critical thinking.

And Farnham says universities build general knowledge as well as specific, employable skills.

Better or worse?

UNBC vice president Rob van Adrichem doesn't dispute the financial pressures facing the institution.

But he says the employer is also bound by provincial rules limiting wage increases. And he says UNBC also faces particular challenges of location and mandate. 

As for the culture: "Without question it's changing. And depending on the circumstance or the individual or the place, you could say it's been better or worse."

Blawatt says she's not sure where that leaves her at the beginning of a career in academia, in the decidedly uncorporate field of gender studies.

"There are a lot of us who are hopeful candidates for one day being part of this educational system," she said.

"And to think that there may be no real hope once I'm completed — that's a world that I don't want to live in."