Finally Canadian university students use the law to assert their rights

November 28, 2006

Students sue for more Teaching Assistants (TAs). Professor-as-stars-on-stage perform to ‘classes’ of 1200 students who pay c.$400 to 650 each a term per course! Not enough Teaching Assistants since PhD students (TA stable) are now forced into subsidizing universities as their sessional lecturers. No wonder PhD students have high rates of attrition.

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At any rate, universities have the best lawyers and their backs are covered. It is ill-advised for a solitary student to take on a huge administration. These undergrad students however are unsettling something else. They are using their status as clients which was conferred upon them by the business model that our cultural and educational institutions have adopted since the 1990s deficit-panic. These are not just irate PhDs. These are a broad-based clientele pool. Bad images carried in the media have an economic impact. Wait until Macleans add this variable in their analysis of universities. “How many times have students submitted law suits against your institution in the last academic year?” How many times was in carried in mass media? Whose lawyers won?” In the end, does it matter? Once the legal question is raised in cyberspace, bright student lawyers fresh out of a frustrating BA experience might enjoy the challenge and find an original legal angle to protect students from their own universities. These are the new generation of students brought up feeling entitled. They are students-as-clients. Maybe they can fare better than previous generations whose education suffered, student debts soared during the 1990s. Maybe this generation will find legal ways to assert their rights so they can sustainably survive their university studies and even manage to have a life after university where their debt load does not get in the way of relationships, marriage, decisions to have children, own their own homes, etc. Any one born in the 1940s or 1950s who went to university in the late 1960s and 1970s in Canada got their BAs if not MAs with the government of Canada’s generous student loan program. These are the people now administering, teaching in our cultural and educational institutions. They are also in policy research, public policy decision-makers.

My own PhD became unsustainable as there was never enough time to at the same time fulfill the overwhelming obligations that come with sessional lecturing, my own PhD research, writing, conference presentations, publications while learning to navigate through the unexpected twists and turns in the politics of academia. I had enrolled as part-time student who intended to remain part-time. For two years I benefited from an Ontario Graduate Scholarship. But after following the ill-pondered advice of my Department’s Graduate Student Advisor, I took on a huge challenge, an exciting opportunity in Iqaluit, Nunavut which ended up stretching out over 18 months. I lived there in Canada’s coldest climate for weeks on end, sometimes for up to four months at a time. It was a huge sacrifice in terms of my family in the south, but it was fulfilling as well. The advisor had convinced me that I should remain enrolled as a full-time student so I would not lose my scholarship.

Within weeks of returning from Nunavut my laptop with 18 months of images files, audio files, research, teaching materials and data was confiscated. I had to plead to be given a week to purchase a new PC and transfer files carefully to make sure nothing was lost. I tried to burn CDs of everything I had done but I know some really valuable email correspondence with students was gone.

The real shock came later when I was informed that I had lost my Ontario Graduate Scholarship. Apparently while I was in the North working on Carleton University’s pilot project, I had not kept up with my Comprehensive exams in the time frame they anticipated for a scholarship student. At my meeting with the new Graduate Studies Coordinator I was informed that I was no longer a desirable candidate for funding.

A month later I completed my second Comprehensive Exam with distinction. Nothing changed in terms of funding so I was obligated to take on yet another new course to design, teach, present, administer, evaluate and mark. I had 65 students and was promised a qualified TA. Three weeks into the course the TA I was assigned returned from her European trip to announce she would rather take on a TA contract with a 1st year course instead of working with my course which was student-centred, media-intense, technology-intense, theory-intense. By the end of September it was clear that there were no TAs available for my class. I had to work late into the night to keep up with the work as this was my first time teaching this course. I loved the material, the students, the class discussions, the creativity. But it takes work to succeed in engaging students especially when the content is complex.

Through all of the sessional teaching work I was still paying the university $6000 a year as full-time student! As a sessional lecturer I was being paid $1000-$1200 a month per course. From that they took back $500-$600 a month for tuition fees. The ddpartment administrator failed to sign our contracts on time that year so none of the PhD student/ sessional lecturers were paid at the end of September. I did not have enough money to buy the textbooks I had assigned for the students! I later found out that this particular university had a $50,000 a year fund devoted to providing teaching materials for PhD/sessional lecturers which the Department Adminstrator knew nothing about! Months later when I was struggling to save my flailing PhD, I met with the Human Resources lawyer who explained to me (with a digital recorder in operation visibly in the middle of the table) that they did not widely publicize the existence of the fund since there wouldn’t be enough money if everyone applied. This blue-eyed, handsome young lawyer listened with such sympathy to my story I thought he would be part of some solution. Instead when I contacted him six weeks later, he said (in not exactly in these words), “Sorry, this is not my problem. There is nothing I can do.”

Years later I am on leave from my PhD. I am using Web 2.0 to share more of the research which I know is useful. In the process of struggle to save my PhD I worked with a graduate student in conflict resolution, I consulted with Deans and Assistant Deans, with the ombudsman, with former professors, with Union representatives both in the university and in the public service, student unions. I wrote to the President of the University. Former students wrote to the President of the University. I was given several small considerations including hardship scholarships of several thousand dollars over a couple of years. But it was too late and never enough. The administrative work involved in each request was humiliating and time-consuming. I had been working to support myself while completing courses graduate studies in high standing since 1992. I completed an MA part-time in less time than some of my full-time classmates. Yet after ten years of this, my PhD was in jeopardy because I had accepted advice to remain registered as a full-time student while successfully completing a presigious challenging pilot project in a difficult post. Effectively the university has turned me into a ghost. My emails are not returned. I think they are afraid of a law suit. Perhaps not. It is quite possible that they have simply forgotten me. I no longer exist.

One of the students from that course ended up getting his MA from Harvard because that one course in Sociology with a focus on human rights, allowed him to finish the one missing course from his BA. He was able to stay in Nunavut thereby keeping his high profile Nunavut government position. The Inuit and Northern students, friends and aquaintances, the entire Nunavut experience, completely unsettled everything I had learned at Carleton University, the University of Ottawa, the National Gallery of Canada, reading decades of the Inuit Studies magazine, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, National Archives of Canada.

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2 Responses to “Finally Canadian university students use the law to assert their rights”

  1. Sharon Says:

    Maureen,

    You posted “Finally…” on November 28th but I’ve stumbled upon it only now, December 8th, filed in a place I’ve never been before. In passing I wonder in how many other places I will find you.

    The story, of course, is (I was going to write ‘horrendous’ but, upon checking definitions, find that instead I should use) horrific (a more apt adjective that connotes ‘offensive’ as well as ‘dreadful’.

    I did not know about what happened to you at C.U., and what first came to mind was certain individuals, (‘Could they not do anything to help?’, ‘Did they not?’) My own struggles of many years with an academic administration suggest to me, No. Those who could have done something for you would not, and those who were willing could not. Did compassion fatigue set in all around as, no doubt and no wonder, you became less fun to be around, or am I assuming our cases are too similar? Temporarily broken, have you experienced the same things I have? How are our stories alike, and how different? What is it to live without resolution?

    One night, do you remember?, we talked about financial support for students. I hope you know that I was not thinking of graduate students when I dismissed the need of students for support from the public purse. I was speaking from my own experience with undergraduates who were amassing massive loans to pay for better cars, vacations, clothes, electronic devices, etc. than I aspired to myself, and for alcohol. Working at the same university that I’d attended decades earlier brought their “plight” into perspective for me. I hitch-hiked from the corner of Elm & Euston whenever Mum couldn’t drive me there, and walked hundreds of times thru horrendous weather, worked too many hours at the library, wore clothes I was ashamed of, graduated in absentia because I could not afford the regalia for grad week. The student loan I took out covered only tuition and books; at that, even, it took me 10 years to pay it off. I like my students here but, for the most part, I do not empathize.

    With you it is not empathy either, it is outrage and kinship. Sharon p.s. We are more to one another than two islanders meeting in cyberspace. SN


  2. Stories seem to come to me, even from strangers but often from students from diverse backgrounds. Indeed there is an endless litany of stories of abuse of the publicly available student loans. But I more often heard first-hand accounts from those who were only too aware of the competitive academic and/or work environment during and beyond their BAs, MAs or PhDs would benefit only those in a small security bracket. For others the combined burden of student loans, low wages, competitive academic environment meant that they became trapped in the need to work at several jobs to survive and the need to be assertive in breaking out of their under-employment. These other stories are not out-there because those who live in poverty, are under-employed, over-educated may look a lot like their neighbours. There is a need for dignity in the midst of it all. Do you really want others to know that you and your partner cannot afford to have children even though you have an MA, that you know you will never own a house?

    PS. The fog has settled in again between Genoa Bay and Saltspring Island. I can see sixteen shades of grey. The fire is glowing. I found a $6 West German made slow cooker at my favourite thrift store yesterday and I made a stew which smells really delicious. If the snow keeps melting like it is I can start weeding in a few days.

    Warmly, Maureen


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