Notes on Rewriting the Post-Secondary Learning Act (Draft Clauses for Open Letter to Minister of Advanced Education)

On 30 September 2015, Minister of Advanced Education Lori Sigurdson wrote to faculty and graduate student associations in the province to invite them to furnish their feedback on prospective changes to the Post-Secondary Learning Act (PSLA). The Government’s “Discussion Guide” for the consultation notes that the Government is considering changes to labour relations in Alberta in response to the 2015 Supreme Court of Canada case Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v. Saskatchewan in which the Supreme Court “found that the right to strike is fundamental to the collective bargaining process and is constitutionally protected under section 2(d) (Freedom of Association) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” The “Discussion Guide” also notes that the current PSLA “requires that binding interest arbitration be used to settle collective bargaining disputes at public post-secondary institutions.” Under this mechanism strikes are forbidden. “[I]nstead, a neutral third party decides the dispute after hearing arguments from both sides.” The Government proposes either that the “binding arbitration provision in the PSLA . . . be repealed” so that “academic staff members and graduate students would have the right to strike” or that academic staff be brought under the Labour Relations Code, where they would “be represented by a certified trade union” with the right to strike. See the Government’s full “Discussion Guide” here.

In relation to these options, the Government’s “Discussion Guide” poses a set of nine questions that it asks faculty and graduate student associations to take up. Question 8, for example, notes that “[a]s a result of the changes being made to the labour relations model, academic staff members and graduate students will have the right to strike and institutions will have the right to lock them out, subject to the terms of their collective agreements,” and asks what the perceived impact of this will be. Question 9 asks “Is there anything else that the Government of Alberta should take into consideration in making changes to the labour relations model for academic staff members and graduate students at Alberta’s public post-secondary institutions?”

When the “Discussion Guide” was first issued, the deadline for written submissions to Bart Muusse, Legislation Manager, Alberta Innovation and Advanced Education, was 31 October 2015. That deadline has now been extended to 13 November 2015. It is not clear at this time whether the Association of Academic Staff University of Alberta will be submitting to a letter to the Government on this issue by 13 November 2015. (The Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations has submitted a document that has not been and may not be made public.) Whether or not the Association of Academic Staff University of Alberta prepares its own submission, faculty members at the University have the freedom to express their views on this matter.

Here are some public notes for an open letter to the Minister on what a few of us think the Government’s rewriting of the PSLA should include. We welcome input on the draft material below. Are you interested in signing on to such a letter, and if so what would you like to see in it? Do our notes leave anything urgent out? We would like to have a final draft of the letter by the end of the day on Monday, November 16th, with the plan of the letter with signatures going to the Minister by Friday, November 20th.

DRAFT CLAUSES FOR LETTER (these will follow a very brief orienting statement to the Minister)

  1. We assert unambiguously the right of academic staff in the province of Alberta to freedom of association. We regard the right currently bestowed upon Boards under the Post-Secondary Learning Act to designate members to academic staff associations as an infringement of the Charter right to freedom of association.
  2. We also assert unambiguously the right of academic staff in the province of Alberta under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to strike.
  3. We assert that the right to strike cannot be waived for us by any body that represents us as our bargaining agent with the Board of Governors. As Justice Rosalie Abella noted in her majority opinion in Saskatchewan Federation of Labour vs. Saskatchewan, “a legal system which suppresses [the] freedom to strike puts the workers at the mercy of their employers.” Moreover, “the right to strike is not merely derivative of collective bargaining, it is an indispensable component of that right.” We agree that the right to strike is “indispensable,” and therefore cannot be dispensed with by the turn to any other mechanism. “Without the right to strike,” Justice Abella notes, “a constitutionalized right to bargain collectively is meaningless.”
  4. We would like to see the Act rewritten to rigorously assert the fundamental principles of academic freedom, academic integrity, and academic independence especially in relation to funds received from private or corporate donors, and especially in relation to any research contracts with industry partners into which any university in the province enters. The Act should specify the need for all donor agreements and industry contracts to be made public so that universities are able to guarantee academic freedom and the integrity of their academic goals, as well as demonstrate their ability to protect such freedom, integrity and independence.
  5. We also call for the Act to specify additional criteria for the means by which Board members meant to represent “the general public” are selected. The “general public” cannot properly be said to be represented by members who are solely accountants, lawyers, and business managers. The new Act should specify innovative means to ensure that all members of the “general public” may be considered for appointment to university Boards and given all the support necessary to flourish as Governors. It should also specify the need for representation from Alberta’s indigenous communities.
  6. We also assert that the Act needs to be rewritten to strengthen the provisions for the shared governance of Alberta’s postsecondary institutions. In particular, we would like to see the Act involve a fuller definition of the power given to General Faculties Councils to manage the “academic affairs” of the University to ensure that this power cannot be constrained or circumvented by administrators, not even through mechanisms of delegated authority. Major academic decisions such as the founding of colleges within any of Alberta’s postsecondary institutions must be taken by the principal body, the General Faculties Council.
  7. The new Act should also require Alberta’s postsecondary education institutions strictly to limit their dependence upon temporary or precarious academic and support staff, as reliance on such staff is socially unjust and undermines the political protection of tenure. To ensure that Alberta’s postsecondary institutions are run according to the principles of academic freedom, shared governance, and social justice, the Act should specify a maximum percentage, low, of temporary or precarious academic staff that may be employed as academic staff at any of the province’s postsecondary institutions at any time. We suggest that the Act follow the NAIT rule of allowing no more than 10% of the academic staff at any of Alberta’s post-secondary institutions to be hired on a temporary basis.
  8. Finally, we call upon the Government of Alberta to rewrite the “whereas” clauses upon which the entire Act depends, to define the province’s postsecondary institutions in the first instance as public goods serving the public interest. It is as public goods serving the public interest that our universities best serve the general well-being of Albertans and the province’s culture and economy.

We look forward to the Government’s further consultation with academic staff and graduate students across the province on these issues, and to seeing the Government’s draft of a new Post-Secondary Learning Act.


* * *

Please use the comment box to indicate whether there is anything you would like to add or change, and whether you would provisionally like to sign the letter. The final letter will go to all provisional signatories for their final “yea” before it is sent to the Minister. We are aiming to have the letter to the Minister by November 18th.

Signatures welcome from members of postsecondary institutions across Alberta.





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24 Responses to Notes on Rewriting the Post-Secondary Learning Act (Draft Clauses for Open Letter to Minister of Advanced Education)

  1. Andrew Gow says:

    I would be very happy to sign a letter based on this draft.

  2. Kathleen Lowrey says:

    I would also be very glad to sign this excellent letter as-is.

    One inquiry, as others may have thought this through much more thoroughly and will be able to help me: the point about freedom of association seems to me very important, but I am less sure about academics striking. While in one sense our workplace is our home institution, in another it is “academia” at large. If my staff association called a strike, and a student asked for a reference letter for a deadline during the strike, or a very prestigious journal said I had a paper accepted if I could turn around minor revisions quickly, or a grant deadline was happening that week, there is no way I would “withhold my labour” because these activities are oriented to that larger workplace that is not my home institution but toward which some of my most important efforts are directed. So in practice, striking for academics seems to mean just “not teaching classes” (and possibly, skipping university-internal admin meetings) which certainly has a dramatic visible impact but also suggests, entirely wrongly, that being a university academic is only about teaching. I mean, I don’t think I could ever truly strike because I’d always also “scab” in circumstances like the ones I just listed.

    And those aspects of academic work are the ones that underwrite the really special status of academic labour, especially the justification for tenure. I know too many teaching academics don’t have tenure (and never will — they are hired on non-tenurable bases), but the point is, that’s a bad thing. If we strike on only the non-tenurable aspects of our work, as a way of demonstrating our value and forcing the hands of our employers, that seems dangerous for the other aspects of it that are not oriented to any particular employer in any particular place.

    • Arts Squared says:

      Thanks, Kathleen. Note that there is nothing in the draft material that advocates striking. What we are standing up for, rather, is the *right* to do so, a right recently affirmed in Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v. Saskatchewan (January 2015). Whether academic staff at any given institution in Alberta would want to exercise this right, or how they would go about doing so, is another matter entirely. No faculty or academic staff association in the province could strike without a mandate to do so from its members.

  3. alexemboaba says:

    I am happy to sign the letter.
    Alexandre Da Costa, Assistant Professor, Educational Policy Studies, University of Alberta

  4. Richard Westerman says:

    I would be happy to have my name added to this or any future draft. I am certainly in favour of insisting on our right to strike (regardless of the merits of any particular strike action). There are two things it might be worth considering:

    1. Could we call for representation by *academics* (or retired academics, professors emeriti etc) on the BoG? e.g. “at least 30% of the BoG must be made up of current or former academics, drawn from disciplines representing the university community as a whole, on the principle that those who have lengthy experience in a field are those best situated to understand its needs and values.” We probably wouldn’t get that, but I think it’s an idea worth introducing to the discussion.

    2. I certainly agree with the idea that we shouldn’t be relying on temporary academic labour. But in its current form, this sounds a little too much like tenured/TT faculty defending our rights instead of acting to defend those of CAST colleagues. Perhaps it would behoove us to put in something about providing guarantees, better salaries etc for CAST?

    I think at the moment that a sessional lecturer is paid 10% of the minimum Asst Prof annual salary per course – meaning that such lectures would need to teach ten courses per year to be equal to the lowest rung of the TT ladder – and that’s with very limited additional benefits. Perhaps that could be introduced to, say 1/6 instead of 10%? I don’t know what the CAST situation is with regard to pensions and so on, but this would also need addressing.

    And one final (very minor) cavil: Point 4, “We would like to see the Act rewritten to rigorously assert the fundamental principles of academic freedom”, should, I think, *vigorously* assert. (We assert with vigour and argue with rigour.)

    • Andrew Gow says:

      Good points, Richard. Vigorously, indeed!

      However, I think we should be careful about parsing sessional lecturers’ pay per course as a percentage of TT pay. A sessional lecturer teaching four courses makes $30,000. That’s around 40% of the Assistant Prof. salary floor ($76Kish) — and four courses would account for 40% of an Assistant Prof’s workload… so _in theory_, sessional pay is aligned with TT rates. That doesn’t mean we should not pay more — we should, and we should provide proper benefits. But let’s not forget that teaching represents 40% of TT duties.

  5. Arts Squared says:

    Thrilled that someone cares about the precise language, Richard! Always happy to get into that. My own preference is for the rigour of rigorously, in these senses (Oxford English Dictionary): 2a. with strictness or vigour; b. without exception or allowance; 3. with close attention to or regard for accuracy, detail, or thoroughness; exactly, precisely; minutely, exhaustively; and 4. scrupulously, punctiliously, conscientiously; so as to conform with strict or exacting standards. We argue with rigour because arguments should not merely depend on the energy or intensity of their delivery.

    So then the question is, as you suggest, what else might be specified in regard to the BoG clause and the clause about the limiting of temporary or precarious employment? Especially in regard to the latter, what other strict or exacting standards might be urged? I look forward to hearing further views on this. My own sense is that we should aim for the ideal (currently specified), but I think you are right to suggest that the law might address the specific dilemmas of the current situation. As Andrew notes, though, we would have to be cautious with the specifics. Thoughts from others?

  6. Kristine Alexander says:

    Thanks for doing this — please add my signature!
    Kristine Alexander, Canada Research Chair in Child and Youth Studies/Assistant Professor of History
    The University of Lethbridge

  7. J. Henderson says:

    Jarett Henderson, Assistant Professor of History and MRFA Advocacy Officer, Mount Royal University

  8. Richard Westerman says:

    I’d preface my thoughts by saying I don’t want to claim to speak for CAST staff, since I’m not one of them. But while I see Andrew’s logic in equating the payment for four sessional courses with the 40% of an Assistant Professor’s salary supposedly oriented towards teaching, I think this actually makes the case for higher pay for sessional staff even stronger.

    At one level, this is simply a matter of equity: long-term experienced sessional lecturers shouldn’t be benchmarked against the very lowest rung of the TT ladder (i.e. bottom of the Asst Prof salary scale). But more than this: it directly incentivizes departments to hire sessionals instead of TT positions. Ten classes at paid for individually at sessional rates will almost certainly cost less than ten courses taught by TT faculty.

    Indeed, it makes little sense for it to be cheaper for departments to “buy” courses individually rather than as a package. When we’re at the grocery store (to draw a rather poor analogy), we buy in bulk because it’s much cheaper to do so – that’s how they incentivize us to buy more. And this, I think might offer one option.

    Perhaps the *individual* rate for sessional courses could be benchmarked against something higher – perhaps the base rate for Associate Profs. But departments might be offered the chance to save money by offering contracts of six or ten courses; this should still be more than the lowest rung of the Assistant Prof rate, to make up for the lack of benefits, but might represent savings.

    This wouldn’t just offer more security to CAST staff. In addition, by making sessional teaching labour more expensive than TT teaching, it would incentivize the university to offer more secure TT positions, and so save money.

    I’m not sure how this would be written in to the letter or to the PSLA, but perhaps some statement of the general principle that sessional teaching should cost more than TT teaching, so as to encourage greater job security…?

    • Andrew Gow says:

      I agree: disincentives to hire TT faculty must go, and that includes bargain-basement pay for sessionals. But, If we paid $10K per course, sessionals could live on six courses and administrators would be able to crow about how good a model that is! And many young scholars would accept such positions gratefully, and get stuck in them. I think the “raise sessional pay” argument is a kind of Trojan Hirse. No solution that further undermines TT as the norm is very useful. I think limiting the number o courses that can be taught b sessionals to 10% would be the first step — then raise pay.

      • Kathleen Lowrey says:

        I agree — setting ratios is key for two reasons. First, it will make visible some currently invisible numbers. If there is a benchmark you have to stay below, you have to gather and report the relevant data. Right now, this data is “mysteriously” difficult to pin down. Second, it will build real costs into the system. Right now, undergraduate teaching is coasting along despite a crash in hiring at the assistant professor level because of the use of contingent faculty. It would be good for that to slam into a wall. Good for contingent faculty, because with ratios in place, planning for future undergraduate teaching would become much more transparent: it wouldn’t be practical to just throw some extra courses on the barbie (or take them off) on an ad-hoc basis and hire at the last minute, thus stringing people along about their own future work plans. It would also open up more tenure track hiring opportunities for contingent faculty. Good for students, because although contingent faculty can be excellent in the classroom they are under the present system not well positioned to provide “ancillary” teaching services (reference letters, research opportunities). Good for tenured faculty, because we’d get more colleagues able to do all three kinds of the academic work that make the university go: research, teaching, and service.

        If we really tried to do this in Alberta, it would make us genuinely innovative in exactly the ways that piling on whatever is the MOOCow of Methaney Excellence of the Moment does not.

  9. Richard Westerman says:

    Oh, and the relation between sessional pay and TT salary is, I am pretty sure, the official standard set by the university. I can’t find the exact clause right now, but I looked it up at some point: the official benchmark is 10% of the Asst Prof salary. (And while four courses may be standard in Arts, other faculties have different expectations – I think it’s often 3 or 2.5, e.g. in Business.)

  10. Judy Davidson says:

    Please add my name to the list of signatories.

    Judy Davidson, Associate Professor, Physical Education and Recreation

  11. Todd Nickle says:

    I am very happy to publicly support this letter.

    Todd Nickle, Professor, Biology, Mount Royal University

  12. John R. Vokey says:

    Please add my name to the list of signatories.
    John R. Vokey, Ph.D.
    Department of Psychology
    University of Lethbridge

  13. I would like to add my name to the list signatories, if I may.
    Laura Servage, PhD
    Post-doctoral Fellow
    Faculty of Arts
    University of Alberta

  14. Jaimie Baron says:

    I would like to add my name.
    Jaimie Baron
    Assistant Professor
    Department of English and Film Studies
    University of Alberta

  15. Janice Williamson says:

    Please add my name to the list. I appreciate the thoughtful discussion about contract faculty and precarity in general. And the letter is timely and effective as well. Thank you Carolyn.
    Janice Williamson, Professor, Department of English & Film Studies, University of Alberta

  16. Peter Choate says:

    I would like to be included

    Dr Peter Choate
    Faculty of Health Community and Education
    Mount Royal University

  17. Tanya says:

    Please add my name to the list.
    Dr. Tanya Stogre
    Assistant Professor
    Department of Education
    Mount Royal University

  18. Please add my signature to this provisional letter

  19. Douglas Murdoch says:

    Please add my name as well
    Douglas Murdoch
    Associate Professor
    Psychology Department
    Mount Royal University

  20. Andy Holt says:

    Many thanks Carolyn. Please add my name.

    Andrew Holt,
    Associate Professor of Pharmacology & Associate Chair (Graduate Studies),
    Department of Pharmacology,
    University of Alberta

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