May 15, 2003

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Pressure building on B.C. Universities

When dealing with their employees, British Columbia universities have been subject to guidelines imposed since 1996 by a body called the public sector employers council.
By Drew Parker

Simon Fraser University was recently behind extensive picket lines for
the first time in nearly two decades. The issues leading up to this situation are complex and, hopefully, unusual.

Consistent with the provincial government's emphasis on user-pay, the balance in the funding formula for universities in British Columbia is shifting. At the same time, the public sector labour relations climate is at a low ebb. Morale is down and tensions are up.

At first blush, it would appear that the provincial government is moving to privatize British Columbia's universities. To do so, however, would imply less government intervention in the daily operations of universities. This is not the case.

Concluding that there is a privatization thrust afoot is supported by recent cuts to base funding, along with the new freedom granted British Columbia university administrations to adjust tuition fees to accommodate corresponding budget shortfalls.

On the face of this, one would reasonably assume these institutions are free to competitively restructure and operate in a market-driven economy. Given relatively low tuition fees as a legacy from past governments, and the Maclean's magazine observation (Nov. 18, 2002) that British Columbia's supply of post-secondary seats per capita relative to Ontario is short by about 55,000, one could assume demand for seats, even at a higher price, would remain strong.

However, the provincial government is guiding any new provincial funding toward focused, government-mandated initiatives, such as double-the-opportunity programs for students in programs designated as high technology, or capital allocations for particular buildings, projects and programs. With the tight funding situation in British Columbia universities, there remains little opportunity to challenge such narrowly directed funding when it is offered.

When dealing with their employees, British Columbia universities have been subject to guidelines imposed since 1996 by a body called the public sector employers council (PSEC). This group operates, according to its own description, as a coordinating agency comprised of eight provincial government ministers and seven heads of the public sector employer's groups in the province. PSEC creates guidelines for public sector employee groups across the province, then enforces them by rule of law. If an employer chooses to go beyond the guidelines imposed by PSEC, the amount exceeding the guideline becomes payable by the recipient to the provincial government. PSEC was established by the NDP government in 1996, but was retained when the Liberals assumed power in 2001.

Simon Fraser University is made up of five separate labour groups for purposes of contract negotiations. Since the inception of PSEC, each of these groups has received whatever was the PSEC-mandated increase on a nearly identical basis. Three of the five groups renewed their contract under the outgoing provincial government's mandate, leaving the remaining two to face a new PSEC, again populated in the majority by the new government ministers. A new mandate of zero increases was put forward for each of years 2002 through 2005, and now 2006, leaving the university administration unable to work with each employee group under a consistent set of rules.

This can only lead to frustration in every corner of an allegedly free collective bargaining process, since absolutely no room was offered to accommodate groups and institutions just entering the new mandate with only partial completion of contract discussions.

PSEC allows for adjustments to be made based on proven market deficiencies, retention issues, or new found productivity if evidence can be found to defend such a situation. This has confused the issue in the public mind when groups at UBC, for example, were offered some positive amount in recent contractual negotiations. The negotiators must still satisfy PSEC's requirements or the amounts could be clawed back from the employees by the provincial government.

The British Columbia provincial government may appear hands off in the daily operations of universities, but is not. It dictates terms of any labour contract negotiations, and intervenes to enforce either the mandate or to restrict the labour disruption that will inevitably result from the draconian conditions from which university administrations are not allowed to waiver.

At the end of the day, we all have to work together. SFU has enjoyed growth and success enhanced by an enviable atmosphere of collegiality and professionalism, operating with a strong sense of autonomy. The provincial government is involved in many strategic directions that impact and affect university operations, which I would suggest they should fully fund. Their targeted, reduced funding, and interference with the ability of the university to negotiate with its own personnel is pushing too far into the daily operations of the university. If the provincial government chooses to have universities work with fewer government funds, one should expect universities to have more autonomy to control their destiny. PSEC continues to quietly defy this conclusion.

If we are to again move to relative labour peace and a focus on the job of the university as a whole, outside intervention limiting the actions of university administration, I would conclude, is inappropriate.

If our provincial government wishes to continue to back away from funding its universities, the universities will inevitably react by imposing tuition fee increases and developing programs that can generate funding. We have witnessed extreme, differentiated fee increases in professional schools at Simon Fraser University, and we can expect this to continue. Any government initiatives moving universities away from such a market approach should be fully funded to prevent sub-optimal performance from cash-starved institutions.

The universities' ability to work in an environment free from labour unrest and division can only come from an environment where the administration of those institutions is empowered to employ personnel and negotiate terms of employment without blanket intervention that serves no apparent purpose. You simply cannot have it both ways. In the meantime, the pressure on British Columbia universities will remain high. Labour unrest can reasonably be expected to remain one of the symptoms of such pressure.

Drew Parker is an associate professor with SFU business and the president of the Simon Fraser University Faculty Association.

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