Modern-day Robin Hoods protest against austerity

Coalition de la Main Rouge advocates for reinvestment in public services

About 700 people dressed as modern-day Robin Hoods gathered in Villeray Park on Oct. 28 for the Grande manifestation pour la justice sociale. The event, organized by Coalition de la Main Rouge (CMR), aimed to symbolically give back to the community, as Robin Hood would, by denouncing the provincial government’s austerity measures.

The Grande manifestation was the first event in the CMR’s campaign for social equity and justice which advocates for a more fair distribution of wealth.

The protest began at 1 p.m. with a speech given by CMR spokespersons Dominique Daigneault and Véronique Laflamme, who welcomed those who had travelled from regions like Estrie, Quebec City, Chaudière-Appalaches and Mauricie to show their opposition to Couillard’s government.

A carriage filled with fake money bags then led the march through the Villeray—St-Michel—Parc-Extension borough to represent the money taken away by provincial budget cuts. During the march, the band of Robin Hoods stopped the procession in front of strategic places, dropping off the money bags to demonstrate how austerity measures have affected the community. One such stop was at the Centre de la petite enfance (CPE) St-Marc. According to CMR’s Facebook page, the CPE has faced budget cuts of $300 million in recent years.

Among the protestors was Alexandra Pierre, the supervisor of communications and records for La Table des regroupements provinciaux d’organisme communautaire et bénévole, an alliance of social services groups. According to Pierre, it is crucial to maintain and reinforce the province’s social safety nets.

CMR’s goal is to push the government to reinvest significantly in publics services, social programs and independent community action, according to the group’s Facebook page.

Daigneault, who is also the president of the Conseil central de Montréal métropolitain, said implementing harsh austerity measures that limit public services ignores the fact that those services are still needed by the community. She claimed the government lacks compassion and consideration for citizens, especially the most vulnerable.

Laflamme argued that the Liberal government should use the money at its disposal to invest in the community rather than to reduce taxes.


A full week of anti-austerity

Frigid weather remains, yet protests heat up

On Saturday, Feb. 28, what could be considered the closing protest of the eventful anti-austerity week started on a sunny afternoon at Place Émilie-Gamelin, practically hallowed ground for the city’s protest movements.


This town says no to cuts, yes to education

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.”


From here on out, we’re all in it together

Slimming the budget, post-Voluntary Departure Program

The window for university staff to accept Concordia’s Voluntary Departure Program (VDP) and leave their positions early in exchange for financial packages recently closed. All in all, about 90 members took the offer—well behind the 180 spots available.

The VDP was one of many ways the university planned on cutting back on its costs in light of the continuing government cuts to education, estimated at $15.7 million for Concordia this year alone. The VDP was open to staff, but not faculty. One particular segment of employees that eagerly accepted the offer was the library support staff.

“We’d heard from the community that there were a few people who were kind of on the fence, and keeping in mind this is a major life decision, we opened it up for a second week,” said Concordia President Alan Shepard on his decision to extend it by an extra week.

Most takers are expected to leave by Nov. 30, with the remainder leaving between then and the end of the fiscal year, depending on the nature of their positions.

“This tells me a couple of things. One is that people like working at Concordia; there’s no rush of people trying to escape. It tells me that this is a major life decision…What we’re going to do right now is that we’ve accepted those 90 people, and we’ve had a number of other positions become vacant by virtue of people resigning or having already retired. In the course of the year we’ll have several hundred positions become open, and we’ve frozen those for now while we figure out what our next steps are.” Shepard said it’s likely some vacancies would be closed, but the way forward would be carefully thought out.

“It’s not a great idea to try and shrink the staff. That being said, I have a lot of respect for my colleagues who devised the program,” he added, saying there hadn’t been any complaints in the offers. “It’s a complex balancing act.”

Shepard said 30 positions in the future might be re-hired because of the needed roles they play but wouldn’t say what the conditions and pay would be for returnees.

To cope with the new budget, and the estimated $1 million in additional cuts is predicted to come in the near future; the school is now looking for other avenues of cost-cutting.

“We have a fairly clear idea of where the cuts are coming from: they’re coming from the VDP, from the closed positions, some of them are coming from reductions in the contingency fund—every organization our size has a certain amount of money kept for unexpected costs.” Currently, he says that’s around $4 million, a number that will dip to around $1.5 and will have to be built back up in the future. He also says $2 million will be saved on deferred computer purchases or upgrades.

The austerity mindsets with the current government has hit not just Concordia, but all Quebec universities, and it’s provoked widespread criticism from both institutions, bystanders, and students.

“We’re going too far, too fast in terms of the compressions,” said Shephard. “These are extremely complex places to run and we care deeply about the quality and opportunities for students, staff, and faculty.”

“We’re taking a stance privately. You don’t see this, because it’s done by phone calls and face-to-face meetings. I’ve met with our minister and deputy ministers to say very clearly it’s not okay, [and] it’s having a very negative impact on the institution.”

And publicly? “I’m telling you right now.”


Up in arms over anti-austerity

Over 10,000 march against budget cuts to public sector on Halloween

A familiar sight presented itself in downtown Montreal on Friday as tens of thousands showed their displeasure with provincial austerity cuts. At the protest, students weren’t the only marchers, but were rather joined by professionals, unions members, and public servants.

Concordia’s contingent to the morning protest commenced at the Sir George Williams campus before joining the main group at the McGill University Roddick gates. Colourfully dressed in costumes as befit the occasion and the event entitled “Austerity: A Horror Story,” all assembled were protesting against the large cuts in spending by the Quebec government.

“I think it went really well,” said Concordia Student Union (CSU) President Benjamin Prunty, who noted the comparably large turnout.

“It’s not quite the same as tuition,” he said, referencing the 2012-13 protests that saw hundreds of thousands of people protest against cuts to the education sector. “When the university is looking to cut 180 positions and [is] losing $16 million—and that’s only in one year, obviously the year before they lost more—it’s really easy for students to realize this is affecting them in a real way, and not only that, it will be affecting them in the future.”

Sustainable Concordia’s (SC) External Coordinator, Mike Finck, also agreed that the event was a marked success.

“I think [the event] was very successful on the amount of people who came out on such short notice and looking across who was represented,” he said.

Beside the CSU and SC, representatives from a dozen Concordia student organizations across most faculties. Labour unions like Teaching and Research Assistants at Concordia (TRAC) and the Concordia Undergraduate Part-time Faculty Association (CUPFA) were also present.

“The government is not prioritizing the public sector, and so the public sector needs to remind the government … why they exist—which is to provide support for citizens,” said Prunty. Many of the labour contracts at Concordia and Quebec as a whole are up for renegotiation next year, and he says austerity won’t be lost on the negotiators.

“This is all very top-down. We’re told this is the case, we have no choice, and things are compartmentalized,” said Prunty, who disputes the idea of austerity as the only course of action and without alternative discourses. “We have cuts to the public sector, and low and behold, there’s also tax cuts here to certain parts of the private sector or certain parts of the financial sector.”

Prunty would like the university to take a clear stance on the austerity measures coming from the provincial government.

“When you’re making cuts to education instead of to other places, you’re affecting the people who really need it most. It doesn’t make any sense to me when there’s so many opportunities,” said Concordia student and protester Alejandra Melian-Morse. “We’re struggling, and we’re individuals, not huge corporations.”

“The key, really, is to not feel disempowered by this message being constantly pushed down and that we’re always hearing from the figures we see as authorities. The only answer is to start the conversation ourselves,” said Prunty.


Tuition austerity showdown

Why increasing tuition would have made a difference
by Nathalie Laflamme

In 2012, tens of thousands of students marched in the streets to protest the Liberal party’s increased tuition fee plan. The rest, as we say, is history. Or is it?

The Parti Québécois’ promise not to increase tuition fees led to them to 2012 victory. During their (very short) time in office, they indexed tuition fees at 2.6 per cent for the 2013-2014 fiscal year, and 2.2 per cent for 2014-2015, and lowered student tax credits from 20 per cent to 8 per cent. Together, these changes represent a major indirect tuition increase.

We must also keep in mind that, on average, costs at the university increase by four to five per cent in Canada. “So lets say that inflation is four per cent and you have two per cent, you’re already losing ground,” Concordia President Alan Shepard told The Concordian in March.

Today, the Liberal Party is back in office. Severe budgetary cuts have been made across the spectrum of public-sector institutions. Tuition fees have not increased under the sitting government, but record-breaking cuts to post-secondary education were made this year, totalling at $173 million. Concordia alone has had to cut $15.7 million for the 2014-2015 fiscal year, meaning a total of $29 million in two years.

Concordia was the first university to announce how they would deal with the cuts this year: with a voluntary departure program (VDP). This will mean that 180 staff and administrative positions will be cut this year.

Obviously, cutting 180 positions will have a significant impact on how the university runs. The school did their best in order not to impact the student experience while still making the cuts they had to make.

Still, the VDP does not cover all the cuts that need to be made, and the departments are currently working to find anything that could save the school some cash. Concordia will, for example, save $1 million by postponing the replacement of office equipment, like computers.

All of this begs the question: would things be different had the original tuition hike plan been implemented?

Had the original tuition increase plan gone forward, universities would have received a projected additional $190 million in 2014-2015 from tuition increases alone, according to a budget released by the provincial Ministry of Finance in 2010. Therefore, it would not have been necessary to make cuts to education funding at all had tuition rates increased; in fact, schools would have received substantially more funding.

Of course, this is just a projection. There is no way of really knowing where today’s universities would stand. After all, Quebec has one of the highest deficits in the country. At the time of writing, Quebec’s debt was totaled over $270 billion, according to the Fraser Institute. For all we know, the same cuts would have been made.

Still, the fact remains that universities were underfunded before the government’s budgetary cuts were even announced.

Students don’t want tuition to increase, but is it realistic to expect tuition to be this low forever, when every year, the cost of living increases? Is it time to store away the ideal of free post-secondary education for Quebecers? These are questions worth asking.

For every year that tuition remains this low, universities lose money. We need to remember that, with education, we are getting what we pay for.


Tuition hikes: student’s can’t afford it, but Concordia admins sure can
by Laura Marchand

Quebec is in desperate need of austerity, I won’t deny that. The compressions are hitting everyone in the public sector, and it would be naive to assume that the universities would (or could) be kept out of the firing range. Obviously, Concordia will need to find the money somewhere to continue its operations.

But that place isn’t the pockets of its students—it’s with the administrators.

Let’s start with the obvious: university students simply can’t afford a higher tuition. Students are consistently the poorest bracket amongst Canadians, in part due to the combined cost of tuition, the loss of viable work hours, and the cost of housing and food, among other things. In fact, a 2012 Globe and Mail article states that tuition has been rising at a rate of 6.2 per cent annually—almost three times the rate of inflation, and hence, our paychecks.

As it is, many Canadian students owe about $37,000 in combined public and private debt by the time they finish their education—and 60 per cent of recent graduates have at least $27,000 in debt by the time they enter the workforce.

Frankly, we’re between a rock and a hard place. We can choose not to go to school at all, but in an economic climate where 75 per cent of new jobs in the next decade will require a university degree, being “uneducated” means you’re flat-out unemployed.

However, the meat of the argument doesn’t lie with the circumstances of students. In fact, it lies with Concordia itself.

How often have you tried to find an advisor, or tried to speak to someone in your department, only to be lost in a maze the minotaur would be proud of? You’ll find yourself face-to-face with vaguely-titled administrators and advisors, and will leave feeling bewildered and no closer to finding answers to your queries.

In fact, the VP of Development and External Relations, who also acts as our Secretary General, has nine people reporting directly to him—and all but one of them has an entire office that reports to them, in turn. Combine this with the mind-boggling amount of people we see crammed into each department’s office quarters, and it becomes shockingly clear: Concordia University is top-heavy.

According to Concordia’s own Financial Report to the government of Quebec, $53,028,000 was spent on “Administration”—not to be confused with “Operational services,” which is its own category, and is awarded approximately $34 million.

Our beloved President and Vice-Chancellor Alan Shepard, in 2012 (the year he joined Concordia), earned a staggering $357,000—which is amazing, considering that was only for nine months of work.

I think it’s safe to assume that, in the years since, that figure may have gone up — not to mention the potential bonuses and expense account that go with it. In the case of McGill’s former principal, Heather Munroe-Blum, over $200k was added to her base salary in the form of “other compensation”— and she’s not the only one, according to Maclean’s.

It’s a bit odd that this isn’t anywhere on Concordia’s website, isn’t it? The fact that the only way to find such information is to dig through a 98-page document hidden deep in the archives of the Government of Quebec is, to put it mildly, suspicious.

Why not post this information on your website, Concordia? It’s interesting, because you actually do have a Financial Statements document posted for everyone to see—but it’s a mere 30 pages long. Where did the information on your salaries go? They seem to be omitted from the version you proudly posted on your site.

Yes, the Government of Quebec is compressing our school. But the government should only touch the tuition of its students as a last resort, and not until it has done a little introspection of its own—especially where university administration is concerned.

Exit mobile version