Finally, David Turpin has given Albertans some information about the devastating effects the Kenney government’s two rounds of huge cuts to the University of Alberta’s budget will have on our flagship university. Regrettably, Turpin released the information on a Friday afternoon, when politicians release information they hope will be buried.
Turpin’s news is that, in the face of Kenney’s cuts, the University will have no choice but to lay off up to 1,000 staff members. This number gives the pubic some sense of the magnitude of the shock to the postsecondary education system that the government is delivering, but a vague reference to loss of academic programs won’t produce sufficient public understanding of what the loss of this many staff members will really mean. How do you imagine an organization of the University’s size and stature is going to operate with the loss of almost 1 in 10 staff members?
It’s not as if the University has excess staff! With the cuts it has already faced over the last several years, the University already has fewer staff than it really needs. In 2013, along with the rest of the postsecondary education system in Alberta, the University experienced cuts of a magnitude unseen since the Depression. Those were delivered by the so-called “Progressive” Conservatives, and they helped to get the Conservatives voted out of government later that Spring. But less than a year into his term as Premier, Jason Kenney thinks he is free to savagely cut postsecondary education in the province, with special savagery reserved for the University of Alberta, on the expectation that Albertans will forget what he has done by the time the next election rolls round. After his grotesque fiscal miscalculation last Spring, with his massive corporate give-away to oil and gas corporations, Kenney is now in effect saying that Alberta can no longer afford its world-class university.
On top of all of this, in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, effective next Tuesday, faculty and other instructors are being forced to suspend in-person classes and move to “online” or “remote” instruction, with a mere one day’s preparation on Monday. The University’s messaging around this has been limited and nowhere acknowledges that this is a fundamental and problematic alteration of the nature of university instruction that will shortchange students.
In theory, this is nothing more than a temporary measure, in relation to the kind of pandemic that scientists have long been predicting was likely to occur. But the idea that postsecondary instruction might be “delivered” by “online” means has been a fantasy of university administrators for almost a decade now, with the hope that massive online courses (MOOCs) or other forms of “remote” instruction will be a significant boon to the financial bottom-line of institutional budgets. The University won’t have to maintain the same kind of physical infrastructure, for example. (Don’t forget that that the government is refusing to fund the University’s deferred maintenance budget, forcing the University to close and pull down buildings.) In many disciplines and programs, there is no good way for university instruction to go “online” or become virtual, but the government is busy ensuring that we will lack the physical infrastructure and staff to continue with postsecondary instruction in the usual form.
The university classroom is one of our most precious social forums, and it is facing a strange conjunction of crises — first, with government disdain for what we do, and the Kenney government’s refusal to properly fund the University, and now with a virus requiring the University’s buildings to become ghost towns for the near future. If all goes as it should, the virus will be contained, and we will return to our offices and classrooms. But there is nothing temporary about the consequences of Kenney’s cuts. They will permanently clear our campuses of people crucially needed to do the University’s work.
It is with particular sadness that I note, as a former President of the Association of Academic Staff (AASUA), that our Association has simply not being doing enough in the face of this combination of crises. It has in fact been largely silent — with no communication to members in the face of Turpin’s Friday announcements.
In regard to the latter announcement, about the move to “online” or “remote” instruction, the University has very serious equity issues that it needs to address. As a result of the systemic underfunding of postsecondary education in Canada over the last few decades, about 40% of the instruction at the University of Alberta is offered by staff in inadequately paid “contract” or temporary appointments. This is something that university administrations don’t like to draw attention to, but it’s a simple fact that puts the lie to any claim that postsecondary educations in Alberta have somehow been too generously funded. If the University of Alberta were properly funded, the percentage of academic staff employed in “contract” or “temporary” positions would never be higher than 20% — the overwhelming majority of the teaching would be done, as it should be, by academic staff employed (and appropriately compensated) in permanent faculty positions. Right now, the expectation that “contract” staff will, along with faculty, find instantaneous ways to move to “online” or “remote” “delivery” of courses by Tuesday involves the expectation that “contract” or temporary instructors will do additional work for which they are not paid. Faculty, meantime, will have no choice but to offer instruction in a seriously attenuated form, in many cases in ways that cannot begin to replicate the quality of instruction that usually occurs in our classrooms.
It is the role of our academic staff association to protect academic staff from such eventualities. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) advises:
Academic staff associations should ensure, preferably through a written agreement with the administration, that all measures taken in response to the pandemic are temporary and solely in response to an extraordinary situation. The association, through its representatives on the Joint Health and Safety Committee, should be involved in assessing the health and safety of the workplace, and determining when classes should resume as normal.
The return to “normal” may happen easily enough elsewhere. But how do we return to “normal” here when we are dealing not just with the consequences of instructional change due to COVID-19 but also the government’s massive budget cuts?
We can recover from the coronavirus, but not from Kenney’s cuts. The University cannot lose 1,000 staff members and maintain its excellence as a research and teaching institution. The government needs to be told this in no uncertain terms, or we will be left with an institution that is permanently handicapped at doing its immensely important work for Alberta and Albertans. That work includes not only the kind of research that helps us fight, and ideally prevent, pandemics, but also all the forms of research and teaching that help us work towards a better future, one in which we are more knowledgeable, more humane, and better at dealing with life’s challenges, as a result of all the learning and interactions that occur in those precious social spaces known as university classrooms.