Letter to the Editor


Dear editor,

Re: “TAs should be taught to teach”

A previous editorial in The Peak outlined symptoms of worsening quality of education SFU students’ experience. As SFU students and members of TSSU’s contract committee, we’ve seen these symptoms progress despite our best efforts to reverse them. The driving force behind these symptoms is not TAs or professors, who both work long hours to fulfil SFU’s teaching and research mission. Rather, it is an austerity agenda implemented by a cadre of highly paid administrators who control and consume much of the university budget.

The Teaching Assistant system was borne of three needs: for a greater availability of workers able to perform the grunt labour of education; for graduate students to have a means of supporting themselves in their studies; and for an academic system that granted future academics opportunities to gain teaching experience prior to graduation.

Over time, as the university system has morphed, so have the job descriptions of TAs at SFU. Many students enrolled at SFU now spend more time talking to their TAs than their professors, with those TAs, who are students themselves, rarely being given the opportunity to be mentored in their teaching.

The purpose of the TA job as a training and support role for future academics is directly laid out in the Collective Agreement between SFU and TSSU (Article XIII F.2). Since learning to teach is part of the purpose of these jobs, teaching experience cannot be a qualification for TA positions.

While practice is an obvious means by which TAs can improve upon their teaching, TAs will become better teachers much faster with a proper mentorship and training program. To date, the only large-scale training of this nature SFU provides is the biannual TA/TM day — an event that would not even exist had TSSU members not given up monetary benefits to cover the cost.

It is particularly worrying that more and more departments at SFU have begun to deny TAs the opportunity to attend TA/TM day. At the bargaining table, TSSU has consistently tried to negotiate improved access to training and mentorship only to be told it would cost too much.

The effects of austerity on teaching at SFU can be quantified from data available through SFU’s Institutional Research and Planning department. Over the last five years, the number of full-time equivalent students at SFU has increased by five [percent], while the number of TA hours has decreased by two [percent]; combined, this equates to a seven [percent] cut.

This number does not reflect a decrease in the amount of time TAs spend teaching and marking compared to previous years, but instead a reduction in the hours allocated for TAs to plan their tutorials, meet their supervisors, attend lectures, or receive training — all of which reduces the ability of TAs to deliver quality education. The effects of these cuts are particularly concentrated in younger departments, such as the mechatronics engineering program in Surrey — here, TAs have 40 [percent] less time to do the same work.

While this response may paint a bleak picture of the teaching situation at SFU, these cuts could be reversed, and a true teaching mentorship program implemented, at a relatively small cost. TAs account for only $14 million of SFU’s  $500 million budget, [SFU’s budget is listed as $488 for the 2015–16 fiscal year – ed.] or 2.8 percent. Offsetting the aforementioned 7 [percent] cut by increasing TA hours would come at the price of a mere 0.2 [percent] more.

Students have tremendous power to force change at their universities, yet are often reluctant to wield it. Your TAs, TMs and Sessional Instructors will continue to fight for a better SFU education; we hope many Peak readers will join us.


Derek Sahota and Tania Arvanitidis, Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU)