For the past few months, budget cuts and the Parti Québécois (PQ) government’s summit on higher education have taken the forefront of the ongoing discussion on university financing. As students, our automatic reaction is to wonder about class size and availability, finding books at the library, and the availability of advisors. However, for another segment of the McGill community, the automatic reaction is to wonder about job losses and wage cuts.
There are over 4,500 non-academic employees at McGill who keep the university running from day to day. They are responsible for the physical upkeep and administration of the university and constitute a community in their own right. Many employees work at this university for their entire lives, and hold institutional memory that many professors or senior administrators lack. And every time a government decides to implement a new round of austerity measures to public institutions, this community fears for their jobs.
Most of the people who work at McGill are unionized (with four large new units accredited within the past three years), and these unions safeguard against an institution that is forever threatening budget cuts and wage freezes. This week, we heard from the Principal about the need for the entire community, students and workers alike, to pull together and unite in this difficult time. But what does this mean? For workers, this means the University is backing out of wage increases that were fought for, and promised, through long, difficult negotiations. There is a sense that workers should take a lower wage “for the good of McGill”; we see this every day in the cases of students who work at the university and are encouraged to perform skilled work for minimum wage, or for free with the promise of a good reference.
This is a complicated time for student associations as well. The budget cuts have left us in a unique position. We share McGill’s concern about the cuts, but are also wary of collaborating with those who opposed us over last spring’s proposed tuition hike. The government leaves us all wondering what they’re going to do next; it is difficult to know how to proceed.
That being said, it is essential that there be conversations at the student association level about how to react to the cuts, and what we should expect from the University in terms of transparency and involvement in the decision-making process. Currently, there is little information from the administration about their next steps, but as the largest constituency at the university who will potentially feel the impact of the cuts in a multitude of ways, it is imperative that we take strong positions about being kept in the loop at every step of the process, and that the administration provide us with the information backing up their decisions.
Following the change in government, the cancellation of the tuition hike, and the subsequent announcement of these budget cuts, there has been a tendency to blame the students and allies who mobilized against the tuition increase last spring. “What did you expect?” the argument goes, “this is what you get for opposing tuition hikes – universities that are in such a desperate situation that they might have to cut jobs and services.”
Not only is this an easy trap to fall into, but it is also a way of thinking that is completely unjustified. Despite the fact that the actual amount of funding that universities require is debatable, it is not the case that the students who were against raising tuition are against well-funded educational institutions. We simply disagree over the method of funding. Supporters of the strike argued that the funding required for education should come from more progressive taxation measures. This would have meant that students could have paid their fees once financially able to, and not sink into debt at the start of their adult lives.
Many of the conversations between administrators and students about the budget situation have included suggestions that students make contributions specifically to McGill, either as new fees or in the form of donations. This may seem like the easiest way to alleviate a short-term ‘crisis’ situation, but it could be a dangerous path to go down if it reduces pressure on the government to increase public funding. Instead of talking about paying more through a slightly different measure, we must call for a cancellation of the cuts and a real commitment from the government to support high-quality education without increasing the burden on students.
Similarly, we must recognize that students and workers are not mutually exclusive on this campus. The effects of the cuts may be reduction of jobs that students are relying on in order to pay for their studies. SSMU has a history of working with the unions on this campus and currently sits on the Inter-Union Council. Now, more than ever, we should be continuing the communication between associations, in order to understand all sides of the budget cut discussion and use our links with the administration to reduce negative impacts on students and workers alike.
We are fortunate, as students, to have associations at all levels that are able to bring our issues forward both here on campus and in the provincial government. If you have questions, suggestions or concerns, now is the time to get in touch with your departmental, faculty, or campus-wide association and find out what they can do for you.
On Tuesday, March 26 at 4 p.m. in the Lev Bukhman Room, SSMU will be hosting an open discussion session for students and workers to talk about how we should proceed. All are welcome to attend.
Robin Reid-Fraser is the SSMU VP External. Jaime MacLean is the President of the Association of McGill University Support Employees (AMUSE). They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.