The university community is currently consumed with talks of a potential academic staff strike – a strike which could be the first academic staff job action in the University’s history. After 2 years without a contract and a year at the bargaining table, mediation between the UofR and URFA has finished and all are waiting to see what happens after the two-week ‘cooling off’ period. Students are rightly concerned about how a potential strike could affect their studies, especially when we are so close to the end of the semester.
During this period, and on the eve of the 2019-2020 provincial budget, we want to provide some background information and situate these negotiations in the wider context of long term austerity-driven funding decisions by both the Saskatchewan government, and by extension public institutions like the University of Regina.
What the heck does austerity mean?
Austerity is a political-economic term which refers to reducing government debts through cuts to public spending. In Saskatchewan, the Sask Party has implemented austerity measures to deal with the drop in revenue from oil and other extractive resources in the last several years (for now let’s just ignore that this was largely due to their relying too heavily on resource extraction and not enough on, say, raising corporate tax rates for the richest in this province).
Saskatchewan’s austerity has led to consistent cuts to healthcare, education, social services and more – services which have already experienced decades of under-funding. The Sask Party has claimed that everyone has to tighten their belts and share in the work of balancing the budget, yet it is the people who rely on public funding the most–and are the least prepared to cushion the blow– that are disproportionately feeling the squeeze. Is the budget really balanced if it may actually lead to longer-term social costs down the road?
To add insult to injury, the corporate tax rate was actually initially REDUCED in the devastating 2017 provincial budget. It is clear that when the Sask Party says ‘everyone’ needs to tighten their belt they really mean students, the poor, folks with disabilities, families, seniors, etc.
Years of this austerity have conditioned the people of Saskatchewan to expect scarcity, and to fight each other for the ever dwindling scraps of public funding available. Including those of us who study and work in post-secondary institutions.But we must work together to reject the messages of austerity that divide us and work together to demand more of our governments and public institutions.
What does austerity look like on our campus?
Public institutions can perpetuate austerity too! Government cuts to post-secondary education have been happening for a long time, but it is been particularly bad in the last few years. Rather than fighting back against these cuts, the University of Regina has resorted to cutting services, raising tuition, and seeking less reliable and less transparent private sector funding. Here are a few ways this has manifested on our campuses:
Since the last tuition freeze ended in 2008, tuition has gone up at the UofR by 36% regardless of academic staff wages. This has disproportionately impacted international students, which the university has increasingly relied on for funding. In that time the largest wage increases have been for out-of-scope administrators, ironically including those fighting against an equitable deal for academic staff. For the university to claim that and increase in academic staff wages will raise tuition is manipulative and disingenuous.
With tuition, and administrative salaries, on the rise, the Saskatchewan Government doubled down on students by making deep cuts to students loans, income assistance, and scholarships in both the 2017 an 2018 budgets, making it harder than ever for Saskatchewan students to get by.
URSU has recently launched a tuition freeze campaign in response to these increases, and we encourage students to get involved!
Creeping corporate influence on campus and lack of transparency
As post-secondary institutions increasingly solicit and rely on corporate funding to make up for cuts to public funding. There have been growing concerns about the influence this has on teaching and research. For example: the ongoing legal action against the UofR by professor Emily Eaton after the university denied her access to details about corporate research grants (even after the provincial privacy commissioner ruled that they should release the information!).
Pitting students against faculty
Throughout the bargaining process, the university administration has unfairly used their access to all-student communications to misrepresent the bargaining process, and imply that any increase in wages or other working conditions for academic staff will inevitably lead to an increase in tuition. The University of Regina Faculty Association (URFA), who does not have the same level of access to students, has consistently refuted much of the information being presented, and students would be well served by checking these out, and to attend our March 20th info session, where they can speak directly with URFA members.
Most disappointingly, it seems URSU has bought into the administration’s divide-and-conquer tactics, and has released statements which unquestioningly parrot misinformation supplied by the university administration. We as students must ask ourselves – who does this narrative serve? Whose back are funding cuts being balanced on? Is it equitable? Who holds the power in these situations?
Linking rising tuition directly to equitable wages and working conditions is only possible if we believe that austerity budgets and funding cuts are the only solution to our debt. It is a scare tactic created to silence those who are already targeted by public funding cuts. Austerity approaches have existed for decades and there are huge and growing bodies of evidence and movements denouncing and discrediting them. To the austerity cheerleaders out there, we have one clear solution:
TAX THE RICH Y’ALL!
- The Regina Public Interest Research Group (RPIRG)
RPIRG is a non-profit student-led resource centre at the University of Regina. We encourage and support student engagement on social and environmental justice issues both on campus and in the wider community.
Other links and resources:
below are great short videos that introduce the concept of austerity, sharing them is NOT an endorsement of the UK’s Labour Party