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Green Party's free tuition promise should include fair pay for contract academic staff

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It's been a busy end to summer. My eldest daughter, Keira, returned home from tree planting on August 30. She had exactly one week to find a place to live, arrange a moving truck and settle in. You see, my daughter is starting a masters program this week. Fortunately for me, Keira chose to attend the same university as her younger sister, Cate, a first year undergrad.

Unbelievably, everything fell into place and we arrived outside Cate's residence only an hour later than our assigned time. When we pulled up in front of the residence building, half a dozen energetic young people descended on the moving truck. It was priceless to watch the shock on their faces when they saw the double bed frame and mattress along with a vast sea of household goods -- Keira likes comfort. A wave of relief washed over them when Cate showed them her meagre belongings. Cate travels light.

Both my daughters have lovely spaces to call home for the next eight months. They've settled in and started making friends. They know I don't believe in teaching to the test and I sure don't believe that the be all and end all of a university degree is getting trained to fit a job.

My kids are encouraged to go to college and university to develop their critical thinking, explore their creativity, and strengthen their ability to think for themselves and express their views firmly, yet graciously -- at least most of the time. I encourage them to take courses in philosophy, sociology, anthropology, women studies, native studies and fun electives along with their required courses. In order to have a good life it's going to be important to be able to think outside the box and be comfortable with constant change.

It's amazing how much things have changed since I completed my undergrad. I worked part time while in high school and saved every penny before I went to Ryerson. I was able to earn enough each summer to pay my yearly tuition. I graduated without any debt. I went on to spend two years at George Brown College and then did a year of teacher's college at Western. I used the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) for those additional three years, but I remember paying it back with interest after only three or four years. Those were the days when teachers were in short supply and you could pick and choose where you wanted to work. Paying my student loan was no hardship at all. This is no longer reality for most college and university graduates.

The average tuition increased 3.2 per cent this year to $6,191 which is in line with the undergrad fees my daughter paid. I wouldn't mind the increase in tuition if more of the money was making its way into the pockets of professors who actually instruct students rather than paying for golden handshakes to exiting presidents and escalating administrative fees. 

Take McMaster president Peter George for example. In 2008, George was the highest-paid university president with annual salary and taxable income of $505,000. But, it was Peter George's retirement package of $1.4 million over 15 years beginning in July 2010 that was most disturbing. And, the package almost went unannounced because George's annual payments are $99,999 -- or one dollar short of the $100,000 cut off for the Sunshine list.

It is a fact that increasingly professors are being offered part-time precarious positions. Contract professors, also known as sessional instructors, are paid $6,500 to $7,500 per course to a maximum of three courses per term without benefits or pension plans or job security. Meanwhile, secure tenure teaching four courses per year make $80,000 to $150,000 plus all the trimmings and that position is for life.

On September 9 the Green Party unveiled their Policy Book. It contains a detailed plan to consult and collaborate with provincial governments, universities and colleges, to abolish tuition fees for post-secondary education and skills training for Canadians by 2020. 

While phasing in this plan, the Green Party will give graduates a hand-up by implementing a debt forgiveness program that will eliminate any existing or future student federal debt above $10,000. The Greens will also stop charging interest on new student loans while increasing available funding for bursaries.

The Green Party will create a national Community and Environment Service Corps providing $1 billion annually to municipalities to hire Canadian youth. This will give young Canadians work experience for their resume.

The Greens will fund these initiatives by eliminating subsidies to genetic modification research and the fossil fuel industry. They plan to close down offshore tax havens. They'll increase the tax rate for large corporations to 19 per cent. They'll legalize cannabis and tax it. 

At the time of writing, I was unable to find the most recent post-secondary education and skills training plan for the NDP or Liberals. But, it's early days yet and I'm sure we'll be hearing from them very soon.

The Conservatives plan is to double the federal grant provided to low- and middle-income families through Registered Education Savings Plans (RESP). This will ultimately provide as much as $2,200 more per student in matching government support assuming parents contribute from birth until age 17.

Here's how RESPs work. By opening an RESP for your child and making minimum yearly contributions of $2,500 the federal government will contribute 20 cents on the dollar to your child's RESP. The conservatives have announced an increase for middle-income parents of 20 cents on the first $500 contributed annually. Lower income families, those receiving the National Child Benefit Supplement, will receive 40 cents on the first $500 contribution each year. But, ultimately, parents are responsible for saving for their children's education and that's no small feat these days after paying for the necessities of life. I had five children so that would mean putting aside $12,500 per year to get the maximum federal contribution.

Low-income families receiving the National Child Benefit Supplement who are unable to make any contribution at all can qualify for a Canada Learning Bond (CLB). The federal government pays for the CLB. Each child gets an initial $500 and will receive $100 each year up to age 15, as long as their parents continue receiving the National Child Benefit Supplement. That's a whopping $2,000 plus interest to help cover post-secondary education costs for children from low-income families.

The Green Party's plan is ambitious and achievable. But, regardless of the party that wins this election, or the parties that form a working coalition government, ending the practice of hiring sessional instructors needs to be an integral part of the post-secondary education plan. We want our students to learn from the best instructors. Yet, the institutions they work for are unwilling to pay a living wage with benefits so that they can focus their energies into teaching rather than just surviving. What a terrible message to send to our educators and to our children.

If Elizabeth May gets her way and free post-secondary education and skills training becomes reality, then there should be a component requiring these institutions to direct more funding towards professor salaries and benefits rather than marketing, administrative costs and golden handshakes to outgoing presidents.

Post-secondary education and skills training is essential to Canada's long-term economic, environmental and social health. That's why it's imperative that we have a federal government that's willing to assume a leadership role and demand progressive changes from the top down.

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Image: Flickr/Gianni

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