Monday, February 24, 2014

Updates from your OCUFA Director

Jasmin Habib, FAUW OCUFA Director

Early in February, I attended the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) Board of Directors meeting.  Several issues remain high on the agenda, particularly as there is every reason to believe an election will be called in coming months.  I thought I might share some of what I learned at the meeting, below:

OCUFA Pre-Budget Proposal

OCUFA submitted a pre-budget proposal to the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs.  Among other things, the submission called for a) increased funding to the universities, highlighting the extent to which universities have begun to rely heavily on contractually limited academic staff; b) a collaborative approach to resolving the university sector's pension crisis; and c) a restoration of cuts to the faculties of education across the province.

Program Prioritization

Reports from OCUFA directors from Trent, Brock, Laurier, York, Nipissing and Guelph all noted the challenges posed by the Program Prioritization Processes (PPP) initiated by their administrations.  Note that several of the OCUFA directors where PPP is in progress reported low morale and serious polarization among faculty resulting from these processes. Our own Provost, Geoff McBoyle, has indicated that we will not be engaging in this process, something we can celebrate, by all accounts!

University Differentiation Policy in Ontario

OCUFA completed a research discussion paper entitled “University Differentiation Policy in Ontario” in response to the release of the Ontario government’s “Differentiation Policy Framework” in December 2013. According to OCUFA Executive Director Mark Rosenfeld “The document outlines the principles and components that comprise its differentiation strategy as well as the metrics that [can] be used to assess and promote their vision of differentiation.”  He notes, as well, that with each iteration of “transformational change” (that is the language used by the government to describe this process), the government seems to be backing away from actually directing universities to incorporate its vision.  That said, there is serious “[concern] that the government’s plan will discourage real, organic institutional diversity in favour of a limited, top-down vision of differentiation.”

Strategic Mandate Agreements

Negotiations over the Strategic Mandate Agreements (SMAs) continue, with the Minister expected to visit every campus across the province.  There is concern that we are increasingly seeing a shift in the degree of control taken by universities’ administrations and out of the purview of their senates.  Unlike many other universities, our own SMA passed through the UW Senate last month.  What we still do not know is what effect these agreements will have on future funding. That is, we are not sure what “levers” the government will or can use. It is not at all clear that program approvals will be linked to funding, but of course we need funding to mount new programs.

Satellite Campuses

The Ontario government released its “Major Capacity Expansion Policy Framework” in December.  Many think of this as the “satellite campus policy” because it was
If new campuses are supposed to offer students the full range of undergraduate education, then this guideline runs against a differentiation policy which is meant to encourage universities to build distinct programs.
developed to guide those universities that have proposed or are considering proposals for expanding their existing campuses or building satellite campuses. In the main, these campuses are supposed to offer undergraduate education to underserved geographical areas.  Several people noted that there are contradictions embedded in this policy when one compares it to the “differentiation” policy (as above).  If new campuses are supposed to offer students the full range of undergraduate education, then this guideline runs against a differentiation policy, which is meant to encourage universities to build distinct programs. A key consideration for OCUFA in all this is to ensure that faculty members at these campuses enjoy the same rights and privileges as their colleagues do at the centre or main campuses.

Online Ontario

In January, the Ontario government announced that it would launch “Online Ontario” in the 2015-16 academic year.  The plan is to offer students access to online courses that will be transferable across the province, and to “optimize enrollments” across the province.  Of special note: there is no faculty representation on the governing board of this new institution.  Kate Lawson, President of OCUFA (and a faculty member from the Department of English Language & Literature at the University of Waterloo!) outlined a series of issues and concerns that have been raised by the range of proposals, including but not limited to:
  1. The question of intellectual property rights (that is, who owns these online courses?); 
  2. The revenue sharing model is yet to be determined (that is, would a dean want to cover costs for a professor to mount a course for Online Ontario?  What would be his/her incentive for doing so?); 
  3. Ever-present workload issues (especially as several reports indicate that online courses may be far more labour-intensive than campus courses with, for example, many students requiring one on one responses to their inquiries); 
  4. Academic freedom regarding course content and design; 
  5. Problems that may arise for students.  

The above serves to highlight that the government does not have a clear vision for this entity. There appears to be a lack of any meaningful discussion about the governance structure of Online Ontario, as well as questions of scale, though we know that it is not likely to be a degree-granting institution. We understand that there
“How can one represent just 20% of a painting?!”
is funding for start-up but what thereafter? The government may see this as a money-saving venture but there is evidence to show it can be more expensive to run these courses well, when compared to campus-based university instruction.  Those who teach using images (for example, courses in art history, visual culture and film, digital media) also noted that the rights to publicly display such images are inordinately expensive. Best line:  “How can one represent just 20% of a painting?!”

Pensions

Pensions, pensions, pensions. This was the topic of very long and complex discussions and I am sorry to say that I did not understand some of the technical discussions at all.  Of interest is that OCUFA, along with the Council of Ontario Universities (COU), is engaged in the development of a straw model for a joint sector pension plan (JSPP).  This collaboration will enable the university sector’s stakeholders to respond to the Ministry of Finance’s technical working group, which is advising the Ministry on pensions in the public sector.  On a related front, in January the government appointed Paul Martin to advise on retirement income sustainability. OCUFA supports the government’s “leadership on CPP reform”.

Trends in Higher Education

Several Directors reported on trends that should raise some concern:
  1. An overall loss in the number of full time faculty (10% and more with no plans to replace retirees at some institutions); 
  2. An increasing number of tenure denials; 
  3. Budget cutting processes that put small programs at risk of disappearing; 
  4. An increase in the number of teaching stream positions, and with them inordinately high teaching loads (5/5 teaching was just one example from a settlement is expected to be ratified); 
  5. 2-tiered bargaining strategies so that new hires may get different workloads and fewer benefits. One can imagine how this sort of splitting can have a deleterious effect across campus; 
  6. Online teaching evaluations have been adopted by several universities and all of the Directors who reported on this process have given it a big FAIL.  It is so problematic that at some institutions the administration has conceded and allowed tenure stream faculty to have paper and in class versions of evaluations because the submission rates have been so low (20 to 30% max) for the online versions. This has placed vulnerable faculty at increased risk.  Several faculty – including a member of the OCUFA Status of Women Committee – noted that there is growing evidence that teaching evaluations – whether online or not -- can have a disproportionately negative effect on members of marginalized communities. All in all, it appears the move to online evaluations can lead to unanticipated and disastrous consequences; 
  7. Last but not least: there is an erosion of collegial relationships across some campuses as budget cuts take their toll and administrations take a more managerial approach to running universities and pay less attention to the needs and voices of both faculty and students.

OCUFA News

A random survey of faculty on other campuses who were asked to indicate how they would like to receive information from their faculty association indicated that they prefer electronic and email newsletters and email updates by a very wide margin (76.2% and 68.3% respectively) over Facebook (2.5%), Twitter (2.4%) or blogs (18.6%).

OCUFA is working with all faculty associations to develop a campaign website should an election be called. Watch for analyses on their site.

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