International students especially eager for an end to University of Manitoba faculty strike
Labour dispute leaves many in limbo, far from home while paying steep tuitions
Some international students at the University of Manitoba say they're feeling helpless, now that a strike by faculty has put their classes on an indefinite pause.
Students who come from abroad have a lot at stake in their post-secondary education, said Tino Hove, a business student originally from Zimbabwe.
They often travel long distances to study here, leaving family and friends behind. They pay roughly three times as much in tuition as their domestic counterparts, he said.
"As international students, we already don't have a lot of ways to defend ourselves against anything, right? We just kind of have to sit there and kind of twiddle your fingers," said Hove, who is in his final year of studies.
"What happens if classes are delayed and then next semester my parents can't afford $4,000, $6,000 in four months to pay for the rest of my school. What happens to me there?"
Hove doesn't have to cope with the same challenges as other international students. He only has one class before graduation, and his studies will go ahead because the instructor is not involved with the strike. Not all faculty are members of the University of Manitoba Faculty Association.
Many other students have had their class schedule wiped clean.
The University of Manitoba Faculty Association started picketing on Tuesday. The union has been fighting for higher wages, arguing the current pay schedule is causing persistent retention and recruitment issues.
Low end of the salary scale
The university ranks second to last out of Canada's 15 research-based institutions in terms of salary.
The average salary for a University of Saskatchewan teaching staff, another research university, was $158,550 in 2019-20, excluding the medical and dental faculties. At the U of M, it was $131,075 that year.
Hove doesn't think faculty are the villains in this negotiation deadlock. "They are also trying to look after their own interests," he said.
But it doesn't help with the financial challenges that persist for international students. Hove does part-time work and started an online retail platform and delivery service to make ends meet.
"I personally come from a country that economically is not in the strongest position," he said.
"The longer anything takes for me to get to a stage where I can work full-time and financially support myself, the harder my life becomes."
Yashas Samtani, a second-year economics student, said the strike disproportionately affects international students. He blames university administration for that.
"The admin right now is failing them by not maintaining this high-quality learning experience that they've paid so much, travelled so far to come experience," he said.
Originally from India, Samtani was picketing outside the Manitoba legislature on the first day of the strike. He said salaries need to be more enticing to keep and recruit faculty.
He recalled a recent story he heard from a student, who said a course taught by a veteran professor last year is now being led by a third-year graduate student. The longtime professor had left the university.
"That's exactly what I mean by hemorrhaging talent," Samtani said.
The U of M argues it put forward a strong offer. Under a two-year framework, the institution is pledging general salary increases of 1.25 per cent and 1.5 per cent.
The offer also includes changes in the salary structure, amounting to an average increase of 9.5 per cent over two years — around 5.9 per cent of that is new money.
Worries over winter
Abdul Ahad, an international student majoring in economics, wants a quick resolution to the strike.
If the labour strife drags on for too long, students who travelled to Manitoba from afar may have to alter their hotly anticipated travel plans.
The holiday break represents "one of the biggest opportunities for them to go and visit home," said Ahad, who also serves as president of the Muslim Students' Association.
Masood Shabanijou has seen the struggles with retaining faculty first-hand as a master's degree student in computer science.
Three professors left in the last year, he said. They can get higher-paying jobs at other universities or private companies.
Now living in Toronto, Shabanijou is eager to enter the workforce, but worries the strike could delay his entry.
"Now I'm very stressed because if my graduation is delayed or pushed back further, probably I will lose this job opportunity in a great company," he said. "This is just really bad for me."
The stalled negotiations are not desired by anybody involved in the contract dispute, but for Hove, who grew up in Zimbabwe, he sees it as a reminder for people, on either side, that they're privileged to be part of a post-secondary community in Canada.
"You're in a position where you have so many good things going for you," he said. "I don't think Canadians realize that coming here is a goal and an accomplishment for certain people."