Undergraduate issues are linked to current labour unrest

By Michael McDonell

Issues that undergrad students face are linked just as closely to current educational policies as what TSSU members have experienced over the 29 months leading up to their new contract. The length of time this took, and the fact that CUPE 3338 workers still don’t have a collective agreement, is not a good sign for having undergraduate issues addressed anytime soon. In the meantime, the list of issues continues to grow: rising tuition fees, cutbacks in provincial funding, ever-increasing student loan debt and high interest rates are only the most visible ones.

In a climate of austerity, students are forced to pay more tuition for their education, while having less time with university faculty, and funding is being cut to university budgets in a number of areas. Similar cuts have happened in secondary schools, where the BC government forced teachers to accept a contract (under the ‘essential services’ clause) which reduced funding, increased class sizes, and attacked teachers’ wages and working conditions. Ask the students who mobilized in Quebec earlier this year: these attacks are interconnected.

In Canada last year, the average student graduated with roughly $27,000 of debt, partly owing to the fact that tuition fees have doubled from their 2002 level and quadrupled what they were in 1992. Currently, close to 40 per cent of SFU’s operating budget comes from tuition fees (slightly above average for universities now — double the 1988 amount). Student loan interest rates in BC are the highest in Canada, at prime plus 2.5. This costs the average student nearly $8,000 extra on a 10-year repayment plan, while other provinces have already eliminated student loan interest. Moreover, in BC, there has been no coherent provincial grants system since 2005. As a result, less than 10 per cent of student loan debt is repaid by the government, unlike Manitoba (46 per cent), and Quebec (42 per cent). SFU should be at the forefront of defending student access to public education, but has instead acquiesced to these provincial cutbacks.

There are many outstanding issues at SFU. One striking example is building maintenance: according to the Graduate Student Society’s report on deferred maintenance, the university has allowed its Annual Capital Allowance to be cut 91 per cent between 2008–09 and 2010, even though the majority of buildings are in poor condition and a nearly 400 per cent increase is still needed from 2008 levels. This is why you saw buckets on the floor in the West Mall Complex as water was dripping from the ceiling.

But it is not that the university lacks money, far from it. To put this in perspective, SFU administrators’ pay has skyrocketed in the last decade. The average wages of the President and four Vice-Presidents of SFU (who oversee Research, Academic, Finance, and Legal Departments) is more than two-thirds higher than Members of Parliament in Ottawa. Admins in general have seen a 45 per cent salary increase in the last eight years, while Master’s TAs have gotten next to nothing without taking serious job action. This is bad both for the quality of our tutorials and for our future in graduate school, where most of us will be if nearly three-quarters of new jobs created in the next five years will require post-secondary degrees.

The current policies at SFU harm not only TAs, TMs, precarious sessional instructors, and campus workers, but the very undergraduates on whom SFU’s operating budget increasingly relies. And yet, channels for students to express their needs do exist: the SFSS Advocacy Committee (and several other committees), which is part of the Where’s the Funding?! Campaign; department student unions, which have members sitting on departmental committees and send paid representatives to the SFSS Forum at least once a month; and action groups at SFPIRG that can undertake projects and raise awareness. We need to continue to support groups on campus (like CUPE 3338) while they fight for their rights, to demonstrate that we know these issues are linked to issues in the educational system in general. Solidarity has to be broad in order to be effective.

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