Students missed five weeks of class, semester potentially salvageable
By Jake Wray, News Editor
500,000 college students in Ontario haven’t been to class in five weeks.
Their fall semester was waylaid when the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU,) the union for Ontario college instructors, voted on October 16 to strike after a breakdown in contract negotiations with the College Employer Council (CEC), which represents post-secondary institutions in Ontario.
The union was fighting for greater academic freedom and fighting against “exploitation” of instructors employed under temporary contracts, according to a press release issued by the OPSEU October 15. In recent years, numerous post-secondary instructors across North America have spoken out against the prevalence of precarious part-time employment contracts that force instructors to re-apply for their job each semester and accept low wages. The CEC called the union’s demands “unreasonable,” saying that the demands would increase annual costs for Ontario colleges by $400 million and eliminate over 4,000 teaching jobs, according to a press release issued by the CEC September 20. Negotiations between the colleges and the union failed to produce results in the five weeks that students were out of class.
Now, the Ontario government has passed legislation forcing the college instructors back to work, effective November 20. Students will return to class November 21.
Premier Kathleen Wynne and her Liberal government moved back-to-work legislation on November 16 with a goal of having students back in class by November 20, according to a report by CBC News, but that was temporarily blocked when the Ontario NDP refused to back the legislation.
Andrea Horwath, leader of the Ontario NDP, said in a press release issued November 17 that her party wanted students back in class by November 20 as well, but only if the teachers’ union and colleges can come to an agreement.
“I will not support back-to-work legislation. I want students back in classrooms Monday [November 20,] and I want that achieved through a deal,” she said in the press release. “It looks like Kathleen Wynne wanted to use anti-worker back-to-work legislation all along.”
Legislators debated the back-to-work legislation throughout the weekend of November 18 and November 19.
Deb Matthews, Liberal MPP and Ontario minister of advanced education, told reporters that the Ontario NDP’s move to block the bill was unfair to students.
“This is up to the NDP, we could have passed this last night,” Matthews said November 17, according to a Globe and Mail report. “This is cruel what they are doing to students right now. Students have been through so much, there has been so much uncertainty.”
Ontario students have expressed essentially-unanimous frustration with the strike, but they have various opinions about who is to blame.
Julian Ghloum, an insurance and risk-management student at Fanashwe College, wrote a letter to Wynne blasting her and the Liberal government for inaction, according to a report by Global News on October 20. He wrote that the government should pressure the CEC to accept some of the OPSEU’s demands.
“If the lack of government involvement continues, you can guarantee to have lost my vote, and I would safely bet that a large majority of the 500,000 students affected by this strike,” Ghloum wrote. “I think it’s unfair that our livelihoods are at risk while the resolution to this conflict hasn’t even begun.”
Krista Seager, a second-year nursing student at St. Clair College, said she blames the teachers for jeopardizing her education, according to a CBC News report published November 16.
“I feel the teachers are being greedy,” she told CBC News. “They’ve gotten most of what they want … sometimes you have to make an agreement and let one or two things go.”
Zachary Babins, a public relations student at Seneca College, told CBC News his mental health has suffered due to the stress and loss of routine caused by the strike. Babins said he and other students are facing serious consequences from the strike, despite the fact that they support the teachers, according to a CBC News report published November 12.
“A lot of us, we really feel for the teachers and we want them to have the tools they need to succeed,” he told CBC News. “But at the same time, we feel caught in the crossfire.”
Many students are demanding refunds on their tuition. #WePaytoLearn, a petition on change.org demanding tuition refunds, has accrued 138,000 signatures. Students who quit college because of the strike are eligible for a tuition refund, according to a report by the Toronto Star published November 20.
Amir Allana, a paramedic student at Humber College and one of the authors of the #WePaytoLearn petition, said both sides of the strike dispute need to consider the student perspective, according to a report by CBC News published October 14.
“We want to send a clear message to both college administrations and unionized faculty: We pay your salaries. It is our tuition money that you are fighting over. Get back to the bargaining table, compromise, and figure it out. Or we want our money back,” he told CBC News. “We are not taking a position. Both sides have a right to bargain and both sides have a right to this conversation. We are just a third stakeholder that has not been heard throughout this process.”
According to CBC News, a class-action lawsuit was launched November 14 on behalf of students seeking tuition refunds.
More to come.