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Goodbye Merrilee, we hardly knew you! Ford government appoints a new Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities

OCUFA’s opening statement at the Ministry consultations on “employee renewal”

Goodbye Merrilee, we hardly knew you! Ford government appoints a new Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities

Following a major cabinet shuffle in Ontario on June 20th, Ross Romano, the MPP from the riding of Sault Ste. Marie was appointed as the new Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities. Romano replaces Merrilee Fullerton, the previous Minister of TCU, who has now been granted the portfolio of the Minister of Long-Term Care.

Minister Romano is a second-term Progressive Conservative MPP who previously held the position of parliamentary assistant to both the Minister of Indigenous Affairs and the Minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines. He is a graduate of Algoma University and the University of Windsor Law School. Prior to his political career, he served as a lawyer at O’Neill DeLorenzi Mendes specializing in civil and criminal litigation. He also served as a city councilor in Sault Ste. Marie before being elected as an MPP in a 2017 bi-election.

Similar to MPP Fullerton, Minister Romano does not have any previous professional background in the field of postsecondary education and it is unclear whether his appointment signals any shifts in the PC government’s plans for the postsecondary sector.

During her tenure as the TCU Minister, Merrilee Fullerton notoriously refused to meet and engage with OCUFA and most other major stakeholders in the postsecondary sector. She repeatedly turned down and ignored any requests for engagement and seemed particularly uninterested in understanding the nuances and complexities of the issues in the sector. Her Ministry also consistently failed to consult any of the representative bodies and experts in the sector regarding their critical policy decisions. The reckless changes to the postsecondary education funding model, cuts to Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), forced so-called free speech policies, and attacks on collective bargaining rights and the democratically elected student organizations are among the decisions made by her Ministry over the last year without any consultation with the sector.

After an eleven-month term, Merrilee Fullerton is now leaving her role as the Minister of TCU, without having once met or engaged with university faculty or most other members of the postsecondary sector in the province.

In the coming weeks, OCUFA is hoping to meet with Minister Romano to discuss his vision for the future of higher education in Ontario and current issues facing the higher education system. We’re particularly interested in engaging the new Minister in a conversation regarding the Ministry’s planned attack on senior faculty, as well as the recently announced changes to the funding model for Ontario universities and colleges. Our hope is that Minister Romano’s approach to the sector would be different than that of his predecessor and that he would value the opportunity to listen to the voices of university faculty in Ontario.

OCUFA’s opening statement at the Ministry consultations on “employee renewal”

At the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities’ “employee renewal” consultation session with university faculty on June 24, OCUFA President Gyllian Phillips made OCUFA’s concerns regarding these consultations and the government’s agenda clear in her opening statement:

Good afternoon, my name is Gyllie Phillips and I am the President of OCUFA.

Thank you for the opportunity to offer some brief introductory remarks.

We have been patient and polite throughout this process largely out of respect for the fact that the civil service is delivering an agenda on behalf of absentee elected officials. However, our patience is running thin for jerry-rigged consultations that are a charade designed to affirm conclusions drawn in advance.

And it would seem that we are back where we started with these consultations in February, including a follow up paper that seems cut and pasted from earlier HEQCO reports. This is a manufactured crisis resulting in a flurry of stereotypes, bad faith, and most disturbing, a distraction from the very real problems facing our system of post-secondary education. This poorly researched report offers no verifiable evidence that faculty working and collecting a pension are high in numbers or have any significant impact on the budgets of their institutions. Instead, we think that the very real problem of lack of faculty renewal is caused by chronic underfunding and the choice university administrations have made to hire early career faculty in precarious contract positions rather than full-time positions. The choice the government is making to scapegoat senior faculty, many of whom begin their careers in mid-life and reach maximum experience and productivity after 50, is discriminatory and, frankly, shameful.

The casual self-serving examples in the paper drawn from other disparate sectors are not just uncompelling, they reveal an ongoing, ambitious ignorance about the specificity of the post-secondary education sector, the work of faculty, and the legal and historical autonomy of universities from government. That aside, in the interest of research rigour, one might have expected a comparison of sectors to disaggregate the data based on average starting age, average length of career, and the educational qualifications, and length of acquisition for the required credentials. It would have been relevant context to note that the pension available to Ontario teachers, nurses, and the civil service is vastly superior to the pensions that most of our members have access to and that those folks start their careers on average 10 years before faculty do. The consultation paper is based on the HECQO report which is based on a COU report, and both contain explicit recognition that their data is incomplete which would suggest to any researcher that their conclusions are unreliable. The report’s single source of data for the universities analysis was a COU report that itself admitted its data was fragmented and incomplete, and could not be relied upon for a systemic analysis. And yet both HEQCO and the Ministry seem entirely comfortable making sweeping, ambitious recommendations that will almost certainly violate the Charter based on incomplete and decontextualized data. This paper is emblematic of both the Ministry and HEQCO’s approach to research on this topic: instead of evidence based policy making we have policy based evidence making.

Though a weak, reheated version of the paper distributed in February, this latest edition does have the virtue of transparently laying out the agenda of forcing senior faculty out of the academy and discriminating on the basis of age. Instead of focusing on the real issue, the Ministry has joined HEQCO in its fixation on scapegoating faculty and blaming faculty, particularly those post 65, for the real problem with faculty renewal: Ontario’s perennial under-investment in higher education. Take for example HEQCO’s rationale for focusing on the labour cost of faculty and in particular post 65 faculty: “The second component, less discussed but more important, is the capacity of institutions to sustain and improve the quality of the education they provide. This commitment to academic quality is the raison d’être of the system.” The none too subtle, ageist inference here being that post 65 faculty are a barrier to academic quality.

While academic quality is indeed the raison d’etre of the system, it would be amusing if it weren’t so offensive to suggest that stripping post 65 faculty of compensation and violating the Charter right to freedom of association though collective bargaining will somehow improve the quality of post-secondary education. OCUFA has offered compelling evidence that, on the contrary, senior faculty are often at the height of their research productivity and funding, graduate supervision, and pedagogy. It is hardly surprising that neither HEQCO nor MTCU has offered a shred of evidence for this silly proposition. Indeed, HEQCO is so single minded and zealous in its focus on faculty, one is left to speculate whether the whole enterprise is driven and sustained by resentment and animus toward tenured faculty and their elected representatives. That is a tainted reservoir of advice for the Ministry to be drawing from. In its examination of sustainability the Ministry seems enthralled by the frame HEQCO has put around issues facing the system and like HEQCO seems allergic to even mentioning that Ontario has the lowest per capita and per student funding in the country and thanks to the recent OSAP cuts now has one of the weakest student aid programs in the country. Any approach to sustainability that refuses to acknowledge that Ontario’s system of post-secondary education is the most poorly funded in the country and forecloses enhanced funding from the outset cannot be taken seriously.

To the issue at hand, we believe that the only reason these regulations are not already written is because of the regulatory and legal complexity of pensions and, to be candid, coming up with a viable policy that discriminates on the basis of age without ever acknowledging so. In part the problem the Ministry faces is at once conceptual, legal, and pragmatic: how can we reduce a legal entitlement courts have recognized in the form of deferred income earned from past employment (i.e a pension!) but dress it up so it looks like a reduction in overall employment compensation. From our perspective this entire process amounts to a proxy war against the elimination of mandatory retirement. It is, therefore, difficult for us to answer most of the questions you pose because they are largely the subset of one question: What creative solutions can you offer us to strip your members of the right to collective bargaining and their freedom from discrimination on the basis of age?

That’s obviously a question we aren’t interested in answering. However, in order to keep the dialogue moving we have a few questions of our own:

  1. Has the Ministry done any careful analysis of the actual money the various proposed schemes would save? If so, would the Ministry share its number and the methodology it used? To what extent are the projected savings dependent on ‘encouraging’ post 65 faculty out of the system? It is worth noting every model we have used to gauge potential savings demonstrates that HEQCO’S $90 million is an exaggerated figure with limited-to-no documentation to substantiate it. Yet the Ministry continues to cite as if it were fact.
  2. Does the Ministry know the exactly how many faculty between 65-71 continue work full time and collect a pension? This number has been elusive but our research suggests the number of faculty doing so is likely negligible given the vast majority of our members (at the five institutions where it is possible) do not exercise this option for a variety of reasons. This information is hard to pin down because pension and payroll systems are not synced and at this time we know of no reliable way to be sure of the number. That said, we assume the Ministry has this precise data given that they have identified this as one of the most, if not the most, important policy issue facing Ontario’s universities.
  3. Given the scarcity of reliable data will the government fund an independent organization, which HEQCO is not, with representation of stakeholders on it that will commission independent and complete research on the post-secondary sector?
  4. How does the Ministry plan to deal with collective agreements already in place? Is the plan for the Minister to simply override them? Can the government confirm that it has concluded based on rigorous study and assessment that there are no other viable non-discriminatory solutions that respect collective bargaining, and if so share them with us?
  5. If the Ministry moves forward to strip the compensation of senior faculty will there be a reduction in duties commensurate with that salary cut?
  6. How will those with defined contribution plans be treated? And those with hybrid plans? Will there be a distinction between defined contribution plans that are privately held versus those derived from employment at an Ontario university? In the case of the former, if they are not in play, why the wide powers giving the Minister access to personal financial information?

I think it is critical to have the answers to these important questions before we can address the questions set out in the Ministry document. I will conclude by saying we are always open to participating in collegial and collaborative good faith dialogue about how to make Ontario’s system of public post-secondary education better – even when we have to agree to disagree. What we are less interested in is participating in bad faith consultations that assist the government in discriminating on the basis of age and abrogating collective agreements negotiated in good faith. I will conclude by saying our participation here today in no way limits our legal right to challenge whatever regulations come of this process.

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