Nova Scotia

Dal wants $55K to reveal how many profs it's employed over 10 years

The university has told a national union it will cost $55,000 to dig back 10 years and determine how many of its professors are full time and how many instructors it has hired.

CUPE requested data about the number of full-time and part-time faculty

Dalhousie University sent CUPE a $55,000 fee estimate for a freedom-of-information request. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Dalhousie University has told a national union that it will have to pay $55,000 to get the information it wants about the number of full-time and part-time faculty at the school. It has also told the Canadian Union of Public Employees it could take almost a year to compile those figures.

The researcher in charge of the CUPE project has accused the university of trying to hide the information behind the massive retrieval fee.

"I think that either they have not been collecting the data that they are supposed to according to their own faculty agreement or that they know that the data does not reflect well on the university and therefore they don't want to make it public," said Chandra Pasma from her office at CUPE's national headquarters.

CUPE has spent the past year using access-to-information laws to try to determine the makeup of university teaching staff at 78 publicly funded institutions across Canada over a decade. According to Pasma, about half the university administrations have handed over the figures free of charge, including some of Canada's largest post-secondary institutions.

Chandra Pasma is the researcher in charge of the CUPE project. (CBC)

"Within the Atlantic region, Memorial University, which is closest in size to Dalhousie, they gave me all the information I asked for, for free," she said.

"The University of Saskatchewan is another university with roughly 20,000 students — free. Much bigger schools like the University of British Columbia, which has 40,000 students, and the University of Toronto, which has 90,000 students, both sent me the information for free."

According to Pasma, the union has received information from 58 schools and partial data from another 11.

"Of the 58 that responded in full, 35 sent the info for free and 21 charged less than $1,000. At the other two schools, we paid $1,200 and $1,700," she said.

Likely the largest fee estimate ever

Catherine Tully, Nova Scotia's information and privacy commissioner, said Dalhousie's $55,000 fee estimate is likely the largest access bill ever in Nova Scotia.

"That would be the highest fee I would certainly have seen," she said. "I also checked with one of my co-workers who's been here for 12 years and she's never seen a fee that high.

Tully can't be definitive because only appeals cross her desk and it's possible, although unlikely, a larger fee was charged but never appealed.

Dalhousie's $55,000 fee estimate is double the amount charged for all 2,202 freedom-of-information requests to all provincial departments in 2016-2017. Those fees amounted to $27,001.

Initial estimate was lower

Dalhousie initially released the requested information for 2012-2017 free of charge. The university told CUPE in a letter that those records had been stored electronically, but any records prior to the 2012-2013 academic year would require a manual search.

CUPE appealed Dalhousie's June 2017 estimate of $14,100 to complete the request. That was based on an estimated 475 hours to retrieve employment records dating back to 2006.

When Tully's office asked Dalhousie in August "to redo its fee estimate based on an actual sample of responsive records" last July, the university responded that its initial fee erroneously underestimated the work. It was based on the current number of actively teaching faculty, which is 1,900. 

Catherine Tully is Nova Scotia's information and privacy commissioner. (CBC)

"This number does not accurately reflect the number of files that would need to be reviewed to provide accurate data for the years subject to this fee review," wrote Alison Shea, Dalhousie's privacy officer.

She suggested a more accurate review number would be 12,300 files, some of which had been archived.

After completing a sample search of 20 records, Shae informed the union and Tully's office it would likely take 1,845 hours to complete the request. She estimated it took at least nine minutes to retrieve a file, review it and log the information.

"To do this for 12,300 files, would take approximately 1,845 hours or 46 work weeks," wrote Shae in her conclusion of the sample. "At a rate of $30/hour, this exercise would cost the university approximately $55,000."

In another letter to CUPE, Tully's office noted that while the total fee estimate had increased due to the larger-than-anticipated number of records, the processing cost estimate was lower after the sample search, falling from $7.42 per file to $4.47 per file.

Part-time work often insecure

Karen Harper teaches biology and geography, and is a member of CUPE Local 3912, which represents part-time instructors at three Nova Scotia universities — Dalhousie, Mount Saint Vincent and Saint Mary's. 

Her description of life as a part-time university instructor is less than glowing.

"Very poorly paid, we have no benefits, no job security," she said. "We often find out that we're teaching at the last minute, sometimes just a few weeks or even just a few days before we teach, so we can't plan from year to year what we'll be teaching, how much we'll be working."

Karen Harper is a part-time university instructor and a member of CUPE Local 3912. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

She supports her union's work to get a better idea of how many universities are using part-time instructors and whether there has been a trend of using more of them over a decade.

Pasma called university instructors a bellwether profession.

"People are spending a long time getting their education, investing in this career and when these kinds of positions are precarious, I think that's a warning for us about the rise of precarious work within our economy generally," said Pasma.

University responds

Dalhousie University said it could not comment on the union's request for information in order to comply with Nova Scotia's privacy law.

But in an email, spokesperson Janet Bryson responded to the accusation that Dalhousie is trying to hide something.

"In no way is the university attempting to hide any information," she wrote.

The union is hoping to publish the results of its survey in October or November.