As summer comes to an end and we prepare for the start of the fall semester, I wanted to send you a quick message about some of the big things impacting all of us these days. I will try to be both concise and informative, and I apologize in advance if I fail at either.
U of A for Tomorrow
The academic and administrative restructuring processes continue at a quick pace. . Despite our best efforts and official requests, the administration unfortunately continues to deny us a seat at the table. Most recently, the University President and VP Finance responded to an official request from AASUA and NASA for representation on the Academic Restructuring Working Group and the Service Excellence Transformation Steering Committee with an unequivocal refusal. Likewise, our efforts to secure dedicated seats on the UAT Staff Advisory Team were met with the assertion that, although all staff would be able to be nominated or self-nominated for seats, the team would ultimately be selected by the current leaders of the process.
What we are being given, instead of full access and participation in the process and the ability to actually influence decisions, seems to be the same powerpoint presentations we have all seen numerous times coupled with the same assertions that the University of Alberta will be a better, more efficient institution at the end of this. This has resulted in our members being left to piece together details about scenarios, amalgamations, transfers, and budget numbers from less reliable sources such as news reports and the rumor mill.
A few weeks ago, a number of AASUA members were able to meet virtually with representatives of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) from the University of Sydney, Australia. We felt this would be a good idea given Nous Group’s (the consultant hired by U of A to advise on the process) direct involvement in the process at the University of Sydney. What we heard was that the process for them focused almost exclusively on financial and administrative efficiency with very little concern for the academic outcomes or the larger public interest mission of the university. They also warn that the extreme focus on efficiency does not end after the restructuring, with staff now facing an almost obsessive focus on KPIs (Key Progress Indicators) and administrative efficiency indicators. At the same time, student satisfaction surveys at the school have fallen to the second-lowest in the country. This single-minded focus on financial efficiency poses a real and significant reputational risk to the University going forward.
Their advice to us? Get political, challenge assumptions, push back on the efficiency framing, push for disclosure of data, and above all else, keep the focus on the academic and public interest mission of the university. We are currently working with our colleagues at NASA to arrange a webinar for all U of A staff with the NTEU representatives in mid- to late-September, so keep your eyes open for the notice.
COVID-19 Impact on Members
Back in June we made a proposal to the employer that would see all staff that had to shift to on-line teaching in winter 2020, as well as anybody that supported on-line teaching, receive financial compensation for the extra work required. We also proposed the creation of a special expense fund for all staff that would provide reimbursement for working-from-home expenses like internet service, equipment, and office furniture. To date, despite numerous reminders, we have heard nothing back in response to this proposal.
We all know, as does the employer, that the emergency shift to on-line teaching and working-from-home would not have happened if it was not for the time, dedication, and resource commitment of our members. Especially worth highlighting here is the number of ATS that have spent their summer working with no pay to prepare their courses for on-line delivery in September. CAUT’s recent survey on impacts of the pandemic on academic work highlighted that that a majority of academic staff across the country are working more than before the pandemic, with almost one-third working more than 10 additional hours per week. It’s time the University of Alberta acknowledged this extra work, commitment, and stress with more than just words, and we will continue pushing for this.
The University has committed to providing employees with T2200 forms at the end of the year, which will allow people to claim some work-from-home expenses on their 2020 tax returns, but the CRA has not yet provided detailed information and guidelines for the deductions. This is definitely a positive step, but it is still highly inadequate.
Budget and Job Loss
During the release of the Fiscal Update last Thursday, the finance minister signaled that the government would not take steps to address the province’s revenue problems and, as such, further cuts would be coming in February’s budget. While the Minister provided no details of what is to be cut and by how much, we can likely expect further cuts to post-secondary institutions in Alberta. We know that current budget cuts resulted in the loss of 400 positions in 2019-20, and a further 635 are anticipated to be cut this year. University leadership, however, has been coy about how many further positions will be eliminated as a result of the UAT process.
According to the information provided thus far, the UAT process is based on the $216 million worth of cuts already implemented and/or announced for the U of A through 2023. Because we have not had access to the specific data and calculations behind the UAT process, however, we have no idea how further cuts from the government will impact the assumptions behind the process and, more importantly, how it will impact the further loss of jobs and positions on campus. Our concern here is for our members, for their jobs and work-loads, and for the well-being of the University as a whole. The longer we go without seeing detailed numbers and forecasts, the more concerned we become. We will continue to push on this front as well and will share any information and insights we receive.
The combination of the pandemic, the budget cuts, and the restructuring is creating an unprecedented set of challenges for us and our university. More than ever, we need to hear from you about how you are being impacted by all these changes and processes. Also, we all need to get involved and seek input, in whatever way we can, into the processes going on around us. Whether it’s through informal conversations with colleagues and leaders, or formal consultation processes with the University or the government, we are the front line moving this institution forward, and we need our voices heard.
We will be hosting our first informal “Zoom Coffee with the Table Officers” in the next week or so and we ask that you please keep your eyes posted for that event and we encourage you to “drop in” to let us know what you’re seeing and hearing, and what’s on your mind.
I also want to remind you that AASUA’s Labour Relations Officers are available if you require representation. Should you need any advice about any employment-related matter, or feel your rights under the Collective Agreement as a staff member are being violated, please reach out to them. They can explain those rights to you, give you advice on how to proceed, and even move the process forward to a formal grievance if warranted. Our collective agreement codifies the terms and conditions of your employment and breaches by the employer should be brought forward to a Labour Relations Officer as soon as possible. Please go to Members Services on our website for further information if you require representation.
Finally, I’ve had the opportunity to do a few media interviews on behalf of the AASUA in the past few weeks. Here’s one example from HuffPost, looking at the impacts of budget cuts and pandemics on universities in conservative provinces.
I wish you all a smooth-as-possible start of the semester, and thank you again for your ongoing work and dedication on behalf of our students, our institution, and our community. As always, please don't hesitate to comment below or contact me with any questions, thoughts, or concerns.