Why has academic freedom become a sticking point in the college strike?

It's one of the last major issues on the table

Five weeks into Ontario’s college faculty strike, Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) members are being urged to reject a forced ratification vote set for November 14 to 16.

Faculty from 24 colleges in Ontario are fighting for quality and fairness. Currently, only 20 per cent of college faculty are employed full-time. The remaining 80 per cent of teaching staff are employed precariously – part-time, contract to contract, semester to semester – and paid for time spent in class, not for time spent doing course design or marking.

But along with overtime hours, better access to full-time jobs and equal work for equal pay, the instructors want the College Employer Council (CEC) to include language protecting academic freedom.

It’s become a sticking point as the strike has schools scrambling to revise semester schedules. Often confused with freedom of speech – which it is not – academic freedom has been an integral aspect of research and learning for decades.

Here’s why it is one of the last major issues on the table.

What is academic freedom?

In 2011, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada updated its definition of academic freedom as “fundamental to the protection of the rights of the teacher to teach and of the student to learn. In research and scholarship, it is critical to advancing knowledge.”

Historically, colleges have been community hubs of applied learning, designed to respond to labour needs of localized industries. Where universities have provided a knowledge-based education, colleges have provided a skills-based education.

But in the last 10 to 15 years, colleges have started offering degree programs and receiving research grants. Increasingly, college instructors hold master’s and PhD-level degrees and they want more input into the design, delivery and assessment of materials.

How does it work at universities?

At universities, broader decisions around learning are made at senates or among groups comprised of faculty, administrators and students.

What is the union’s position?

Decisions around academic freedom are at the whim of administrators. JP Hornick, full-time instructor at George Brown College’s School of Labour and chief faculty negotiator for OPSEU, believes the conflict around academic freedom is about “growing pains within the system, which requires new conditions for teaching and learning,” she says. “Change is hard for institutions.”

For Humber College and University of Humber-Guelph sociology instructor Sheila Batacharya, academic freedom is about determining what textbook is used, how much can she rely on online tools versus in-class learning and deciding whether students satisfactorily completed assignments. These decisions are made solely by administrators.

The week before classes started in September, management called Batacharya into a meeting with other instructors. She was told the textbook she had chosen for her Introduction To Sociology class would be replaced with a version two years older, leaving her scrambling to re-work the semester. Rather than reading about the Arab Spring and Dakota pipeline protests in the newer book, students studied less current issues.

She’s also concerned about administrators interfering in grading, and feels pressure to pass students even if they have not met the expectation of the course because colleges receive a benefit for retaining and graduating students within a given time frame. If student completion rates are poor, that can affect how the province funds or accredits the college.

“If progressing students is more incentive to college administration than honouring the assessment of students, then education is in big trouble,” she says.

What is the CEC’s position?

Faculty should have a central voice in decision-making around curriculum but should work collaboratively with administrators. But the union is asking for too much control.

The CEC believes the union’s demands cannot be granted because, in the college system, courses must meet standards determined by the province, accreditation bodies and industry partners.

“In extreme cases,” the CEC has stated, the union’s position “could create a situation where a faculty member could refuse to meet standards set by our academic partners or refuse to deliver the curriculum agreed to by his or her colleagues. This would lead to inconsistent learning outcomes or even the loss of external accreditation.”

The Colleges’ position is that academic freedom should not be part of employment contracts, but outlined in a “letter of understanding” added to the collective agreement that gives instructors “the right to enquire about investigate, pursue and speak freely about academic issues without fear of impairment to position or other reprisal.”

The union has called the CEC’s response weak because without language in employment contracts, administrators cannot be challenged if they violate the policy.

(Sonia Del Missier, chair of Colleges’ bargaining team, did not return requests for comment.)

What’s at stake?

Who makes the final call on grades.

Administrators have the final say on grading and whether a student will pass or fail. Not only does this impact the quality of education being offered, it could impact students’ ability to perform in the profession for which they are being trained, and, the reputation of the program and the college.

For Hornick, the issue of academic freedom is about switching from a top-down approach to having decisions made in the classroom.

“There is a fear that teachers are going to run amok with the academic freedom clause, but the proposed language limits this while maintaining the principles of academic freedom,” she says. “Issues of academic freedom can’t be separated from contract faculty issues because those who are precariously employed are the most disadvantaged by the lack of opportunity to make decisions about what’s happening in their classrooms.”

If administrators and instructors collaborate about what goes into a course, what resources are used, how a course is taught and how a student demonstrates learning, education improves. That impacts professional performance. Instructors are more fulfilled if they are engaged in the education they deliver, and if they are given a greater stake in decision-making, they should be compensated accordingly.

news@nowtoronto.com | @checkoutrach

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