Pay teaching assistants more

In the eyes of the U of T, this activity is worth peanuts to them./ Brett Nielsen

In the eyes of the U of T, this activity is worth peanuts to them./ Brett Nielsen

A TA works hard for the degree, but gets little in return from the University.

In light of the recent TA strikes in Toronto, it made me step back and look at the situation in my department at the U of R. Living in today’s economy with a decent-paying full-time job still makes it difficult to make ends meet, never mind if you are a student TA or a sessional lecturer. Unable to find a permanent teaching position, you are therefore working semester-to-semester, unsure if you are going to have a job the following semester– especially in these volatile times where teaching positions are supplied on a dwindling budget.

I am a graduate student coming up to the end of my MA program, and a teaching assistant with two years’ experience. Hours are very limited, and there seems to be less and less every year. When I first started as a TA, we were allotted 100 hours per semester; we’re now down to 80 due to budget cuts, and that could shrink next year. The point is, we can’t afford to live on these wages. Graduate students make just over $20 per hour, and undergrads make less than that. So, we make approximately $1600 over four months, including marking, holding office hours a couple times per week and sometimes teaching classes. You’d be surprised how quickly those hours get used up. It’s impossible to live on, which forces students to hold another job on top of their TA position and classes. It affects our studies. Apparently, there was a time when TAs actually made a living wage so that they didn’t have to find secondary employment elsewhere. But, the money just isn’t in the budget, now.

I have been looking into being a sessional lecturer, since I want to teach after getting my Master’s. However, they are paid just as poorly. According to the U of R Faculty Association (URFA) collective agreement, the sessional lecturer salary range in 2013 was $6388-$7241 per class, per semester. Who can live on that, especially if you have a large student loan to pay off? So, that means, just like a teaching assistant, these sessional instructors have to take on full-time employment elsewhere to supplement the income they make doing what they love. The really sad part is they are making well below the poverty line if they are only teaching one class per semester, yet they have a Master’s or a Ph.D.

This isn’t how it was supposed to be. Don’t we go to university so that we can obtain a higher-paying job? I mean, with all the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into a university degree, especially a graduate degree, should we not expect to be making more than a McDonald’s employee? Aren’t we told that a university education will help us make it financially in this world? So why is it, then, that universities pay non-tenured and non-permanent university staff so horribly? You would think the administration would know how much work is put into those degrees and would want to compensate for it, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead, they come out as one of, if not the, lowest-paying employers for the level of education that they ask for in their non-permanent teaching staff. And, sadly, it’s like this in universities right across Canada.

So, was the U of T and York University TA strike necessary? Absolutely. Those instructors earned those degrees and the right to make a wage that they can at least live on comfortably. Teaching assistants take those jobs because the hours are flexible and work well with our academic schedules, but we are still forced to find secondary employment elsewhere. From what I understand, a new tentative agreement may have been reached at York, but at least they fought for what they knew was rightfully owed to them. Back home, the URFA collective agreement expired in 2014, so I would assume negotiations are going on as we speak. It would be nice to see the U of R to follow suit and finally stand and fight for something that they not only worked their ass off for, but rightfully deserve: the right to earn a wage they can live on.

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