OPSEU’s college faculty and support members have grave concerns around the white paper The Future of Ontario’s Workers, commissioned by Colleges Ontario, which represents the employers of Ontario’s 24 public colleges. Advertised as a roadmap to adapting to changes in work and the economy, it makes 17 recommendations based on the mistaken assumption that the future of work lies in a gig economy offering precarious, impermanent work. With this as its starting point, the paper proposes moving college education in the wrong direction in three important ways.
Faculty and support members in the colleges know the ability to think critically has never been more important – for individuals, for businesses, for the economy. They recognize students’ need to respond to a changing economy. That’s a need they’ve been responding to extremely effectively for five decades.
College employers, on the other hand, have lost contact with teaching. They see students as statistics and units of production – not individuals who need a high-quality education based on a solid foundation of broad knowledge and specific skills.
Moving colleges from educating students to training them, the white paper emphasizes “micro-credentials”: the blinkered idea that an education is as good as the job it can get you.
It promotes the idea that workers will need to constantly “upskill,” creating a continuous loop of training for precarious jobs, instead of a solid foundation of learning followed by skills development through post-graduate certificates that lead to good jobs.
As one of its big advantages, the micro-credential model boasts what the paper calls “flexibility.” This is code for precarity, preparing tomorrow’s workers to be hired and laid off, trained and retrained at theirown expense, as best suits the financial interests of employers.
At a time when there is huge public outcry for levelling the playing field, this model freezes income, deskills workers and entrenches inequalities across generations. The poor, unemployed, older, disenfranchised, racialized and other marginalized students will get a micro-skill that comes with a built-in glass ceiling, while privileged students get a more thorough, transferable education. This model will further entrench the inequities that already exist in our society.
The paper encourages expanded online learning. One benefit of online learning is an ability reach students in remote areas. Employers also see it as a cheap alternative to in-class learning. Cheaper doesn’t mean better. Most educators and students know the online experience is not as effective as in person, especially for students who are struggling. And our members know that online learning done properly requires supports and infrastructure that will not be cheaper in the long run.
Attacking faculty and support staff
The white paper attacks the principle of shared academic governance, which is critical for responsive education, and the reputations of our institutions. The fact that, incredibly, OPSEU’s 13,000 frontline faculty, 8,000 full-time support staff and 17,000 part-time support staff were not even consulted on the future of college education underscores the critical need for college employers to guarantee staff and students a role in decision-making.
The report also suggests that academic freedom at the college level is unnecessary because the knowledge acquired in college learning is “fixed.” This is false and displays profound misunderstanding of the complex teaching and learning activities that occur at Ontario’s colleges. College faculty sought – and won – academic freedom in 2017, because it is central to research and teaching. Without it, faculty can be forced to pass on government and/or corporate messaging as unquestioned truth. When combined with a reduction in in-depth, generalized and holistic curriculum, this undermines even more the quality of an education that allows students to think critically.
Our students deserve much, much better than what college employers propose, and so do faculty and support staff. We invite the colleges to partner with faculty, support staff and students to build a future of education – and a future of work and workers – that’s worth living.
Warren (Smokey) Thomas, President of OPSEU
Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida, OPSEU First Vice-President/Treasurer
RM Kennedy, Chair, OPSEU College Faculty Division
Janice Hagan, Chair, OPSEU College Full-Time Support Division
Duncan McFarlane, Chair, OPSEU College Part-Time Support Division