Academic Freedom and Precarious Work in Ontario Colleges

| 08/02/2018
By Jack Wilson, Algonquin College
[originally published in the CALL Ontario newsletter]
 
On September 14, Ontario college faculty provided a strong strike mandate to their bargaining team coincidental with the 50th anniversary of the community college system. Faculty provided an even stronger mandate to the bargaining team on November 16 when they rejected the Forced Offer of The Council. Several issues were at play, but chief among them were academic freedom and the precarious nature of work for contract faculty. December’s arbitration award by William Kaplan, while did not completely resolving these issues, has, nonetheless, pointed the way forward that will see the most gains for college faculty in decades of bargaining.
 
Until the past decade, academic freedom was assumed to be a given by most faculty at Ontario colleges. However, successive collective agreements have consistently stated that it is academic managers who have final say when it comes to academic decision-making; the fact is most managers have chosen not to exercise that right, and faculty have had academic freedom by default. However, an increasing number of faculty have discovered to their bewilderment and consternation that decisions are being made by managers about their programs and courses that are unsound pedagogically and harmful to the quality of the programming they seek to deliver to their students.
 
Stories abound from that of managers dictating the choice of resources—at Algonquin, faculty found themselves obliged for a time to use eTexts whether they were appropriate or not—to managers changing final grades without input or permission from faculty, to managers changing evaluation factors from essay/project to multiple choice in order to jam more courses onto a SWF. At my home college, an idea was purportedly floated by one manager to lower the pass rate to 40% in the name of “improving retention.”
 
As guardians of the quality of our programs, faculty have quite rightly voiced their need for academic freedom: subject matter experts should have the ability to make the appropriate decisions to maintain the quality of their courses and programs. That faculty in community colleges in other provinces, and university professors in every province, enjoy that right should belie any notion that what is being sought is either radical or unfeasible.
 
What the Kaplan Award has done is to establish academic freedom as a contractual obligation not a college policy that can be changed at whim. The new language under the heading “Copyright and Academic Freedom” makes it clear that all faculty have the right “to enquire about, investigate, pursue, teach and speak freely about academic issues without fear of impairment to position or other reprisal.”
 
As JP Hornick, the Chair of the Bargaining Team notes, “This change is nothing less than historic. It is a watershed moment for the colleges that will be truly transformational in the years ahead.”
 
The second issue at play has been the precariousness of the work of contract faculty. Every four months, thousands of contract faculty have to reapply for work and, in some cases, such as the 7 metro Toronto area, they must try to piece work from several colleges in order to maintain a semblance of a livelihood. In addition to not having a guarantee of work beyond four months at a time, many are provided little in way of material support: no office, no phone, no place to meet students out of class. They know they are at the mercy of unhappy students, and with the full knowledge that the college wants high retention, they may feel obliged to evaluate more generously so as to minimize student complaints.
 
None of this is a recipe for maintaining quality education for our students, and with the imbalance of contract to full-time faculty (by some estimates, the imbalance is over 70% in favour of contract faculty), the college system is exploiting an underclass of college workers while short-changing the very students the colleges purport to support in getting a quality education.
 
However, under the new collective agreement, “a new multi-stakeholder government-facilitated task force will be established to make recommendations on faculty complement, precarious work, college funding, student success, collegial governance, and other issues critical to the success of the college system. This is a serious forum in which faculty will be able to make their voices heard. The government has committed to considering the task force’s recommendations at the Cabinet level,” says Hornick.
 
In the months ahead, it will be up to faculty then to monitor the progress of the Task Force, to provide input where and when warranted, and to respond to the findings of the Task Force when it makes its interim report May 18. Then we may have something to truly celebrate on the 50th anniversary of the community college system.
 
 

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Category: Faculty, Quality Education, Solidarity, Strike

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