Concordia’s town hall brings panelists and students together to discuss austerity
A frank town hall on Monday, Nov. 24 discussed austerity in a multitude of perspectives composed of various university student groups, faculty associations, community organizers, and students.
Moderated by PhD student and part-time professor Erik Chevrier, the conversation brought together a group of panelists representing a broad section of Concordia, from part-time faculty to student councils and groups. The discussion followed a logical progression, from defining the dangers of current government policies striving for a balanced budget at the expense of education and society as a whole, to fearful concerns of what these policies could mean and, finally, to ways of moving forward in solidarity along a united front in resisting and raising the issue to greater public consciousness.
Austerity, the hall determined, is not an unavoidable action, but a prioritization of what is to be funded and what isn’t. According to the panel, the strategies of austerity are entirely voluntary and are the result of short-sighted policies that jeopardize the province’s education—with long-term consequences in store—and of societal mechanisms for the benefit of the corporate vote, misguided economics, and political considerations between the elites.
“These things are judgments by politicians,” said Chevrier in his opening remarks. “They enact the location of where the funding goes.” Cuts to education mean reduced services, larger classes, less research and a lowering of its priority.
Though a fair bit of time was spent analyzing the perceived irony in which all save corporations pay for the failing economy, for the most part attention was paid to various strategies and consensus-building approaches.
“What happens is that when we take away protection from the environment it actually makes the job of ecologically destructive industries a lot cheaper for [the corporations] to accomplish,” said Sustainable Concordia’s external coordinator Mike Finck, who brought an environmentalist angle to the discussion. “[Austerity] amounts to a subsidy for ecologically disruptive organizations to do their work, and they do this because in our capitalist system accumulated profits act as a lever on our political system that allows them to change the way that it functions.”
Robert Sonin, mobilization officer for the Teaching and Research Assistants of Concordia (TRAC), spoke about how he was led to believe one of the university’s highest priorities was funding for research and teaching.
“There’s been this turnaround where education is seen as a luxury,” he said of the similar tactics occurring worldwide, an unfortunate trend that goes hand in hand with an added focus on education. “The reality is, you have an increase in the amount of education it takes to do anything in the world.”
“When you start cutting budgets, the teaching budget is the big budget—it’s what you spend money on. When you cut that, what ends up happening is you have to replace outgoing professors, these tenured professors who are retiring, with cheaper staff, and those are replaced with ever cheaper, and at the bottom rung are teaching assistants.” He says a school cutting TAs undoes the crucial functions they perform in aiding the professor in grading and handling class work and, especially, online classes—a particularly profit-friendly concept for universities. “If you don’t have assignments, how do you know what you’re doing, how well you’re doing?”
“We have TAs who do extra hours, notoriously tons of extra hours for free because we want to do a proper job,” said Sonin.
CSU President Ben Prunty saw a broad alliance between all public sectors as key in the fight to maintain their interests in the face of political and corporate agendas. The atomization of group interests is, for Prunty (and, one can safely say, many of those present), the death knell of the entire anti-austerity movement, and he repeatedly defined austerity as beyond individual struggle. He also echoed the idea that the university has been insufficiently vocal in taking a stance on austerity.
Prunty said the university was not responsible for the cuts it faces, but that “we can call them out for what it’s not doing.”
Concordia is currently coping with budget cuts of over $15 million for the 2014-2015 fiscal year, with more to come. So far, the university has expressed concerns over the quality of its education and research under such conditions, but have not taken an official position opposing austerity.
Maria Peluso, part-time faculty member of political science and former president of Concordia University’s Part-time Faculty Association (CUPFA), was on hand to give the students support and insight, as a teacher with several decades of union and teaching experience under her belt. She says she’s seen the increasing corporatization of universities aiming for uncertain marketplace profit over student learning and the public interest.
In addition the Graduate Student Association, the Undergraduate Students of Philosophy Association (SoPhiA) and the Student Association of Graduates in English (SAGE) were, amongst others, also present.
The final takeaway message was that Montreal’s record of student activism, highlighted most recently in the 2012 student strikes tuition increases, gives hope but also a weighty responsibility to students in building bridges and framing the discourse in a positive and progressive way.
Chevrier ended the event with the closing words, “let’s not stop the conversation here, let’s continue it.”