A View From the Ivory Tower
On the Devaluation of Labor
By EUGENIA TSAO
I recently had lunch with a friend of mine who happens to be an administrative assistant at a small
postsecondary institution in southern Ontario. Over mayonnaise-slathered sandwiches, we discussed the
implications of the global economic crisis for higher education in our country. Most Canadian universities
have reported dramatic losses in their endowment funds in recent weeks, virtually all departments have
implemented hiring freezes to stem budgetary hemorrhaging, and most unions have had to enter into
contract negotiations under the threat of cuts to existing benefits and wage rates.
“I guess it’s understandable,” my friend lamented between bites. “People like me are expendable; the
professors aren’t. They’re the ones who do the research and create the jobs. If it weren’t for them, there
would be no university.”
There seemed to be a certain logic to her assertion. Yet something about it did not sit right with me. As we
arrived back at her office, I noticed that nearly every square inch of floor was covered with reams of file
folders. Spiral-bound ledgers lay open everywhere; yellow adhesive notes neatly framed her computer
screen, each with a hurried reminder scrawled upon it in ballpoint: call her, e-mail him, fax both. She
shrugged. “It’s a busy time of year.”
I nodded slowly, mesmerized by the scene. “What would happen if you got sick and had to take a week off?”
She pondered the question a moment. She’d been sick before. The daily workings of her department had
slowly unravelled, she recalled. Tasks had bottlenecked; delays had snowballed. While attempts had been
made to train temporary personnel in her responsibilities, only she had the firsthand experience necessary
to expedite the specific outcomes that students and faculty sought when they knocked on her door:
cataloguing sensitive materials, ensuring that various communiqués reached the appropriate parties,
clinching the attentions of fickle bureaucrats.
Were it not for her, in other words, and all others in her position—laboratory technicians, archival
technicians, groundskeepers, teaching assistants, webmasters, dishwashers—there would be no university.
The union-bashing and labour-trivializing that has come into vogue of late has typically been predicated on a
small set of dubious assumptions: The first is the notion, extensively debunked on this site and elsewhere, that the wages and benefits enjoyedby unionized workers are undeservedly generous, and have served only to exacerbate the economic downturn.
Aided by the kinds of subtle rhetorical techniques beloved by news editors everywhere—the
strategically positioned photograph, the passivized headline, the carefully selected metaphor—this
perception has achieved a commonsensical flavour amongst unsuspecting readerships throughout the
West. Narcotized from years of propaganda, we have been conditioned to scapegoat those who produce the
wealth rather than those who have mismanaged it. The relationship between personal wealth and personal
worth, we are assured, is a linear one: the more money a person has, the more he’s contributed to society,
so let him be. Those who have literally given their lives to their industries, by contrast—often enduring lurid
occupational hazards along the way, such as daily exposure to toxins and radiation—are called overpaid
The second of these assumptions is the notion that there is a qualitative distinction between “skilled” and
“unskilled” labour whereby certain kinds of activities (e.g. picking apples) inherently merit less remuneration,
because one does not need special credentials to undertake them, while other kinds of activities (e.g.
marking essays) merit more remuneration, because such positions do require special accreditations. I will
not here examine the legitimacy of this belief. I will say, however, that the dichotomy—designed as it is to
engender feelings of envy and resentment—lends itself beautifully to the managerial divide-and-conquer
tactics familiar to labour organizers. When a cafeteria server’s wage is perceived to be too high, the teaching
assistant is supposed to gaze ruefully at her hard-earned B.Sc. diploma and become indignant. When a
laboratory technician loses her job, the bricklayer is supposed to feel a frisson of delight at the revelation
that education does not confer immunity. We are all supposed to seethe bitterly when those less “skilled”
than we refuse to know their place, and to smirk when those more “skilled” than we are brought down a
notch or two.
The third of these assumptions is the conviction that university diplomas and professional degrees confer
uniqueness and irreplaceability. Janitors are, allegedly, all more or less interchangeable; PhDs are not. This
is the logic upon which my friend, the administrator, was drawing in lamenting the dispensability of her
position. But is this even remotely true? When a university department sets up a hiring committee in order to
fill a vacant professorship, one of the first things they do is determine what kind of specialist they are looking
for: someone who studies land tenure systems in East Africa, for instance, or an arctic archaeologist. A
formal job search is then launched, and, for each and every one of these vacancies, hundreds of roughly
identical applications pour in. For each and every professor—or lawyer, or doctor—who retires or resigns,
someone equivalently qualified is waiting in the wings. Does this mean that all arctic archaeologists are
interchangeable? No. What it means is that, in an economy that treats us all as utilities, formal education in
itself accords neither indispensability nor individuality.
We ought not delude ourselves. We all wield skills that are vital to our collective survival: the construction
worker no less than the engineer, the lab technician no less than the endocrine surgeon. When a waste
collector finds himself unemployed, society does not screech to a halt, true—nor does it when an architect
finds herself unemployed. There are no unalterable or essential criteria behind these distinctions, whatever
the economists say. Labour is labour; we are either all replaceable or all irreplaceable.
“What will you do after you graduate?”
My friend is asking me a question that has become an inside joke amongst my circle of acquaintances. I
usually respond that within a couple of years I will almost certainly be living in a grocery cart with a pack of
dogs, and so the question is moot. On more optimistic days, I announce an intention to become a traveling
minstrel. Chuckles are elicited, and I am able to breathe a sigh of relief at having skilfully dodged the
I am in a less whimsical mood today, however, and so I tell her the truth: I don’t know. With the increasing
casualization of labour at the postsecondary level, and the growing number of jobseekers with expensive
acronyms on their business cards, the eventuality of my becoming a nomad looks likelier as time goes on. It
does not bother me; I am not convinced that chasing tenure is a more valuable use of my time. But the
implications of our society’s tactic of increasingly devaluing labour—manual, technical, and otherwise—while
increasingly relying upon it cannot be trivialized. It is now possible to earn a Bachelor’s degree at some
Canadian universities without ever encountering a professor in person: all of the core classes are taught by
underpaid, overwhelmed contract lecturers who are usually students themselves. It is now possible to run a
laboratory like an assembly line: plush corporate grants are put toward the purchase of cutting-edge
technologies, while technicians are denied promotion on the logic that it is the machines, and not them, who
undertake the specialized work.
Meanwhile, the managerial classes continue to divide and conquer. Moralistic overtures about the need for
“everyone” to make sacrifices in these hard times continue to suffuse campus newsletters everywhere: the
research assistant with the M.Sc. is invited to scowl at the administrative assistant with the B.A., who is
enjoined to smirk at the autoclave operator with the high school diploma. Be aware that none of you deserve
what you earn, we are warned; and be prepared to work ever more for ever less. There is someone better
qualified standing right behind you.
Eugenia Tsao spends her leisure time studying medical anthropology at the University of Toronto. She can
be reached at email@example.com.
Collaboration = innovation
Canada must stimulate R and D spending, universities argue
By Karen Mazurkewich
From The Financial Post
The year was 1965. Canadian manufacturing was facing new challenges. A chief executive at
BFGoodrich Tires in Waterloo, Ont., made a pitch to his community that what Canada needed most was
150,000 engineers: so a university was built. A decade later, when the local insurance industry feared job
losses because they couldn’t find enough trained actuaries, the university created a co-operative program
in the applied mathematics department to help feed a need. Tires are no longer made in Waterloo, and
the insurance industry in the city eventually did shrink, but the legacy of the university programs
engendered a new breed of entrepreneurship and a new cluster of companies devoted to new industries:
software development, wireless devices and satellite technology, to name just a few.
David Johnston, president of the University of Waterloo, likes to repeat this history lesson to underscore a
point: When industry needs to reinvent itself it turns to the innovators at universities. He also wants to drive home the message that the current economic downturn is forcing our country to re- examine its values. “In the next decade, Canada has to constantly work harder at creating higher value and
Tough economic times has university presidents doing some tough talking. In the media frenzy surrounding
bank and auto bailouts, academic leaders have become increasingly vocal about the need for government
and industry to keep looking forward. For the presidents of top academic universities, innovation is the key
to the future in Canada.
But they have also expressed serious concerns that Canada may be losing the race to reinvent itself.
Speaking at the Economic Club in Toronto last week, David Naylor, president of the University of Toronto,
raised some serious concerns over Canada’s ability to build a successful and sustainable innovation
“I’m grateful that universities and colleges are among the major beneficiaries of infrastructure spending by
both the federal and provincial governments in this country,” Dr. Naylor told the audience. But he argues that
even if infrastructure spending will spark the economy, Canada is not doing enough to stimulate creative
Dr. Naylor argued that not only is research and development spending as a percentage of GDP in Canada
below such countries as Israel, Singapore and South Korea, even more alarming is the fact that R & D
spending by Canadian businesses has been on a decline since 2002. Canadian universities are not winning many international research prizes either, he added. Retaining talent is a key factor in the knowledge economy, and the academics have expressed concerns that a shortfall of talent will stymie innovation.
“We must attract talent and develop the talent you have…. and somehow take the ideas that come from that skill base and translate it into either public policy or commercial goods and services that makes your
community more prosperous,” said Dr. Johnston of Waterloo. How do we create such communities? Collaboration, he said, is key. Dr. Johnson is proud of the technology transfer from his university into the immediate community, and attributes that in part to the “Create Owns” policy at his institution, which allows professors and students to retain intellectual property rights — something most other universities don’t allow.
But that policy alone cannot stimulate the greater changes needed in the country. More needs to be done to
support the transfer of ideas outside the academic world, and this is where government and industries need
to step up efforts.
The Science Technology and Industry Council recently reported that for the period of 2002 to 2004,
Canadian manufacturing firms ranged near the bottom of the OECD in collaboration with university
researchers or government labs. Dr. Naylor, who refers to the data as “unsettling,” points out that in 2007,
the majority of private-sector investment in R&D was done by a handful of companies: the top two being
Nortel Networks and BCE. Today, Nortel is in bankruptcy protection.
Dr. Naylor praised the Ontario government’s new $250-million Emerging Technologies Fund, and the federal
government’s new Vanier Scholarships for PhD students, but he did call on better co-ordination of
government programs to support R & D.
“For understandable political reasons, every government loves to create new boutique programs,” he said.
The problem is that there is crossover and confusion among them that makes the system difficult for young
entrepreneurs to navigate. The system needs simplification.
There also still remains a shortage of seed and venture capital of companies.
“Canada, by almost all indicators, is a solid middle-of-the-road performer when it comes to research and
innovation today,” said Dr. Naylor. But he believes that it is within our capabilities to move from mediocrity to
excellence in innovation.
He adds: “When basic research is taken to the marketplace, invention becomes the mother of necessity…
and whole new industries can emerge on the backs of disruptive technologies.”
The University of Western Ontario will receive $6.1 million in
additional operating funding
By Communications Staff
Western News. Friday, May 15, 2009
The provincial government said Friday The University of Western Ontario will receive $6.1 million in
additional operating funding, confirming the university’s portion of a $150-million pledge for higher education
as outlined in the 2009 provincial budget.
“This important investment in challenging times will allow Western to remain focused on student success,
and on world class research that is changing lives and strengthening our economy,” said Western President
London-Fanshawe MPP Khalil Ramal said Western and Fanshawe College, which is to receive more than
$3 million, are being supported in response to higher-than-expected enrolment.
In 2008-09, Western received $266.4 million in operating grants from the Ontario government, up 63 per
cent from 2002-03, said Ramal.
The Reaching Higher plan, announced in 2005, has provided Ontario universities with predictable funding
until the end of the fiscal year 2009-10, although annual amounts had to be confirmed in each new budget.
In the 2009 Ontario budget, despite a tough economic climate, the government set aside planned increases
in operating funding for 2009-10.
“We are excited by what has been achieved to date and enthusiastic about working with government on the
next phase of a long-term operating plan,” said Paul C. Genest, president of the Council of Ontario
Laurentian receives $2.04 million in funding from the Ontario Government
Earlier today, the Ontario Government announced a total of $2.04 million in funding for Laurentian
University. The Honourable Rick Bartolucci, Sudbury MPP and minister of Community Safety and
Correctional Services, made the announcement on behalf of the McGuinty Government.
“While we are in difficult economic times, we have not lost sight of the vital importance of continuing to investin the skills and knowledge of our people,” said Bartolucci. “Today’s students are tomorrow’s work force. Our government’s investment in Sudbury’s postsecondary institutions is paying off, every student will benefit.”
The investment has been used by the university to cover undergraduate growth, particularly for Laurentian
University programs offered through a partnership with Georgian College, in Barrie. The funds have also
helped Laurentian sustain its programs during these tough economic times. Additionally, $520,000 has been
invested in graduate studies to fund 48 PhD spaces, and $132,563 was provided to increase access to
graduate scholarships for a greater number of students at the university.
“Laurentian has been Ontario’s fourth fastest growing university since 2000. This investment by the province
assisted us in sustaining our growth, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels,” said Dominic Giroux,
university president. “Laurentian now offers more than 20 graduate programs. This important investment
from the McGuinty government helped us respond to the increasing demand, and continue to train highly-
qualified professionals in Sudbury, and through our successful on-line programming.”
$1.39 million of this funding is part of the Ontario Government’s additional $150 million in one-time operating
funding for postsecondary institutions across Ontario. $520,000 comes from the Ontario Government’s plan
to invest $51.6 million over the next three years to create 3,300 new graduate spaces at Ontario universities.
$132,563 was provided through the Graduate Fellowship Endowment Fund.
The University of Ottawa welcomes $8.4 million in funding from the Ontario government
The University of Ottawa welcomed an additional $8.4 million one-time investment in operating
funding from the Ontario government. The funding will support the delivery of high quality education for
students and the research activities of our faculty.
The University of Ottawa applauds the McGuinty government for its support of ongoing initiatives aimed at
improving education and modernizing infrastructure in universities and colleges across the province. In
2008-09, the University of Ottawa also received $279.6 million in regular operating grants.
These important investments, which demonstrate the government’s foresight in continuing to make an
investment in education—a vital tool for ensuring a strong economy in the Ottawa-Carleton region, will
support a learning environment where research and higher learning can thrive.
“We have grown significantly since 2002—from 26,000 students to over 36,000—and have become one of
the top 10 most research-intensive universities in Canada. The sustained increase in provincial funding has
been vital to ensuring that the University of Ottawa remains a key player in our community and in Canada’s
education and research sector,” says Allan Rock, President and Vice-Chancellor.
We will continue working in partnership with Premier Dalton McGuinty’s government to achieve common
goals that not only produce ideas and new knowledge but also increase productivity and add economic
Ontario universities celebrate student success and an injection of new operating funding
May 14th, 2009
Student success and the continued commitment of
the Ontario government to higher education were celebrated by the Council of
Ontario Universities (COU) today in response to an infusion of operating
funding for the sector announced by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and
In a speech today, Minister John Milloy indicated that universities and
colleges would receive $150 million of immediate, one-time operating funding
to accompany the province’s annual operating grants for the sector. Milloy
also outlined the achievements of the government’s highly lauded Reaching
Higher funding plan. These achievements include higher graduation rates –
which are critical to the government’s economic agenda of developing “the best
“We are proud of the gains that have been made in student success as a
result of the Reaching Higher plan,” said Dr. Peter George, Chair of COU and
President of McMaster University. “We also applaud the investment of
additional operating funding, which is vital to the financial health of our
institutions and to sustaining the teaching and research environment for our
In addition to enjoying higher graduation rates, Ontario universities are
experiencing increasing numbers of students applying to their institutions.
Once Ontario university students graduate, their employment rate is 94% after
six months and 96.9% after two years. They are sought after across Canada and
around the world because Ontario university degrees are so highly regarded by
Reaching Higher, which was announced in 2005, provided funding until the
end of the fiscal year 2009-10, supporting Ontario universities through
stable, long-term planning and an important increase in operating funding. In
the recent 2009 Ontario budget, the government protected the planned increases
in operating funding for 2009-10.
“We are excited by what has been achieved to date and enthusiastic about
working with government on the next phase of a long-term operating plan,” said
Dr. Paul C. Genest, President of COU. “Sustainable funding ensures that our
universities can achieve Ontario’s goals in developing talent and innovative
research, both of which are central to the future growth of the province.
Today’s funding investment will help institutions to address some of the
significant financial pressures they are facing as well as protect
“The Ontario government has been a leader in advancing higher education
and Ontario’s universities are proud to be partners in fostering the talent
and innovation that drives our economy,” Genest added.
For further information: Peter George, Council Chair & President of
McMaster University, (905) 525-9140 x 24340, firstname.lastname@example.org; Paul C.
Genest, COU President & CEO, (416) 616-7231, email@example.com
Universities start to feel pinchSchools cancel courses, scrap teaching positions, even disconnect phones to reduce costs
By LOUISE BROWN – EDUCATION REPORTER
May 14th, 2009
The recession has cost the University of Toronto law school two dream hires; professors whose job
interviews the school cancelled abruptly last month because of a $2.5 million shortfall in its endowments.
What makes it worse to Dean Mayo Moran is that one already has been snapped up by a U.S. school.
“They were two great Canadians; one a specialist in international development and the other in health –”
Moran stops herself before saying too much about who they were, because of confidentiality and just a little
“It doesn’t matter how spectacular they were – and they were terrific – but we couldn’t justify hiring them,”
said Moran, who is scrambling to cut costs without touching the $2 million in aid so many students use to
help pay the $20,000 tuition.
And so, for the first time, the world-renowned faculty will run a deficit the university will have to cover.
It seems even the Ivory Tower, hailed as a refuge from the storms of the marketplace, is having to batten the hatches in this economy.
At York University, where all departments have been told to chop 3.5 per cent from their budgets for each of
the next three years, law Dean Patrick Monahan has postponed a search for two new professors; one a
leading scholar in human rights, and another to fill a retirement.
“It’s not something we like to do, but if you have to make 3.5 per cent in cuts over the next three years, it’s
very challenging,” said Monahan, noting he may have to chop the number of courses offered to upper-year
The recession also has prompted York to scrap small niche “majors” such as Russian Studies (which drew
only two new students this year), cancel one of two Canadian studies programs and a small cultural studies
stream of fine arts.
On a less lofty plane, York has cut office cleaning from every day to twice a week, is urging staff to curb
BlackBerry use and may consider getting rid of professors’ clunky old land lines that get used so little in the
era of email.
“We’re not just cinching our belts; we have to actually stop some activities and rework others if we hope to
save 10 to 11 per cent over the next three years,” said vice-president Sheila Embleton, noting York may also
let some classes and tutorials grow next year.
The Ontario College of Art and Design will allow classes to grow and may offer some courses only every
other year in a bid to curb spending about 7.5 per cent.
The University of Toronto faculty of arts and science has drawn fire over a proposal to charge all students a
flat fee for five courses even if they take as few as three. That comes up for final vote next week. It will also
tackle a nearly $50 million deficit by charging a $25 lab fee this fall in certain lab-heavy programs, recruiting
more international students who pay full fare and cranking up the marketing for summer courses.
And faculty Dean Meric Gertler has shelved plans to shrink undergraduate enrolment by 600 students, a
move meant to make campus feel less crowded, which would cost $4 million in lost revenue over two years.
The recession has interfered with plans to replace retiring faculty, said Gertler, as well as stopping more
professors from retiring. This year, 70 faculty members chose to work past the age of 65, up from 57 last
University of Waterloo student Andres Fuentes said the recession is penalizing students unfairly for studying
in small disciplines. “My major is Latin American studies … and they’re reducing course choices so much I’ll have to delay graduating by a semester in order to get the credits I need,” said Fuentes.
At the U of T law school, Moran will replace two retiring professors with short-term fill-ins, and bring in fewer
international speakers. “I really feel for those on the academic circuit right now,” she said. “The academic job market has just seized up.” But not entirely.
Budget cuts will force Ryerson University’s psychology department to offer fewer optional courses and
slightly larger classes, but chair Jean-Paul Boudreau said recent Queen’s Park funding allowed him to hire a
director of clinical training and a professor for “quantitative (statistical) psychology.”
York is still hiring in its flagship programs of space science (which designed equipment for the mission to
Mars), biophysics, refugee and migration studies, the Schulich School of Business, the faculty of education’s
cutting-edge urban diversity program and the booming field of health studies.
“Overall we have to rein in hiring, especially in programs where enrolment is down after the strike,” said
Embleton. “There will not be as many tenured jobs this year.”
Provided by – Gillian Barlow