Last week, the Faculty of Arts announced a strategy for summer course delivery, including the May, June, and July terms. This strategy includes maintaining distance learning while increasing the course caps on the existing classes, up to 150 students for classes besides language instruction and social work. The Faculty of Arts informed departments that they will provide a budget for hiring graders instead of TAs, a cost-cutting strategy circulating in all Faculties and Schools. Departments in Arts communicated these changes to course lecturers less than two weeks before they must start teaching. (Read MCLIU's open letter here.)
How much will this affect course delivery and the workload for graduate workers, whether TAs, graders, or Course Lecturers? Significantly. The median cap for summer courses in the department was 45 students, meaning some courses could nearly double in size. Summer courses represent one of the very few opportunities for graduate students to gain teaching experience and many departments offer no formal pedagogical training. Course Lectures and professors are already on their own when it comes to redesigning their courses for online delivery. Now the Faculty is requiring them to plan for double enrolment with no TA, all in less than two weeks.
The Dean claims that this strategy represents an opportunity—for undergraduates with too much time on their hands, and for graduate students in need of employment. We see this for what it is—an opportunity for the Faculty of Arts to gain more revenue from students who are paying for summer credits, while not providing the necessary budget for proper teaching.
In doing so, the Faculty of Arts is in violation of the collective agreements for both TAs and Course Lecturers. Graduate students don’t need the Dean, who takes home six figures, to tell us that a minimum wage grading job is an “opportunity.” We know what fair compensation for this work is, because we negotiated the TA rate through AGSEM. We don’t need the Dean to tell us that hiring a grader to help is an “opportunity.” Our department chairs are already looking for ways to stretch the role of the grader to encompass tasks that are normally reserved for TAs—attending lectures and interacting with students—because they know that this situation demands work outside the scope of a grader. The Faculty of Arts is baldly replacing TAs with graduate students hired as graders for no other reason than the undercut the wage that we negotiated with McGill. This is not an “opportunity”, it’s anti-union and detrimental to the quality of teaching—at a time when quality teaching is the most at risk.
Our unions have met with the Provost every week since this crisis began, and have repeatedly been told that tuition revenue is taking a hit and budgets will need to be cut. This week, the Board of Governors will receive a report from the Finance Committee on the state of the FY2020 budget, where the Provost reports “higher than anticipated tuition and grant revenues” to the tune of +$20.4 million and comfortably assures the Board that “the unprecedented disruption of activity in the last months of the academic year is not expected to materially affect revenues from tuition and fees or grants in FY2020.” The meaning is clear: as graduate student workers, our financial contribution to the university has not decreased, and there is no justification for subjecting us to speed-ups and wage cuts while demanding even more work from us. Last year, the Dean of Arts’ salary and benefits were $250,016, more than three times the total budget for TAs in the Faculty of Arts. If there need to be salary cuts, we say start from the top.