KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – A press release issued June 3rd by the Students, Faculty and Staff Alliance (SFSA) states that Mount Saint Vincent University is cancelling 100 part-time contracts for the fall semester, causing either fewer courses to be taught or sections of courses to be combined.
The SFSA is a new province-wide coalition of university academics and staff, community college teachers, and student unions. It was formed to respond to any threats to higher education in Nova Scotia as a result of the pandemic. Collectively the alliance represents 20,000 individuals.
Earlier, on May 1st, with the coronavirus firmly established in the province, the SFSA in an open letter warned against cuts, layoffs and tuition increases in reaction to the sudden economic downturn. They asked the province and the feds for support.
See also: Open letter from unions in Nova Scotia’s post-secondary education sector
Well, it’s a month later, and so far no federal or provincial support has materialized. Meanwhile, tuition increases are a reality at Dalhousie, Université Sainte-Anne, and StFX University, with other Nova Scotia universities likely to follow.
We spoke with Scott Stewart, president of the Association of Nova Scotia University Teachers (ANSUT) and Chair of the alliance. Stewart teaches philosophy at Cape Breton University.
What will be the effect of the decision not to use part time faculty at the Mount?
This will have an effect on the quality of education students receive this year at the Mount because increasingly courses are taught by people teaching part time, meaning fewer classes will be offered.
To teach these classes we’ve come to rely on a really precarious workforce, who don’t even make a living wage and are without job security or benefits. Because those instructors directly affected are technically not laid off they don’t even qualify for Employment Insurance.
Is it a one-off, or are other universities also cutting costs?
What’s happening at MSVU is not isolated. If you look around the province those cuts are going on elsewhere as well. Our part time faculty here in Cape Breton, for example, are not unionized. So it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on here.
But certainly, non unionized and unionized staff have been asked to engage in any number of concessions, including wage freezes and or roll backs, etc. So the cutbacks are already starting and there’s at least an implied threat that if university administrations can’t save enough money through these measures, layoffs may be coming. I think if those layoffs come they will hurt non-faculty unions like the part-time instructors at Mount St. Vincent University. Non-unionized folks are the ones who are going to be hit the hardest.
But what else can universities do? Do they have a choice?
What we’re telling the universities is that they are presenting this as if there’s no alternative, that they just have to make these cuts. We’re not at all convinced that we know that this is correct, especially as early as in the first week of June.
The assumption among universities is that student enrollment will be down, but we don’t know what’s happening this fall yet. Most faculty associations have indicated that their summer enrollment is about the same, with a few exceptions. Students in general prefer in person classes to online classes, but what are young adults going to do? There are no jobs, and there’s lots of evidence to suggest that when jobs are scarce, enrollments in universities increase.
It’s particularly disappointing to see universities, which you’d want to stand up for social justice values, engaging in these kinds of cuts, particularly before they’ve spent any money they might have tucked away, or before considering running a deficit for a year.
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