CUPE 3906 Unit 1 Bargaining Blog
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Quality of Education

August 18, 2009

Over the last decade, McMaster has seen a period of significant growth in both undergraduate and graduate student populations. This increase in enrollment was initiated by the “double-cohort” of 2003-4, but has continued to accelerate in recent years. Despite the increases support for students and educators has not come close to keeping up with enrollment. Students have clearly noticed as clearly evidenced by the results of the McLeans 2008 student survey, where student-educator interaction was ranked a 32.7 at McMaster compared to the top mark of 49.6 at Mt. Allison.

The net effect of these increases in enrollment has been an enormous increase in class sizes and a decrease in quality of education. While McMaster will not release their official statistics to CUPE 3906, many students and TAs share stories of horribly over subscribed classes and tutorials.  In some departments it is common practice to have tutorials that are “standing room only” for the first few weeks of the semester. Those TAs and instructors who bring up the issue are often told not to worry because students are sure to stop coming. This attitude represents everything that is wrong with undergraduate education at McMaster. Instead of striving for excellence and innovation in teaching, our university has been reduced to an educational factory farm, where students are squashed together and forced through their programs as quickly as possible.

Your teaching assistants, as members of CUPE 3906, are fighting to bring back quality education to McMaster. Every year this university charges more and more to its students and yet we all seem to get less in return. This year, McMaster also received $5.1 million in funding from the Ontario government to fund accessibility and quality of education initiatives.  We know that the most effective way to improve the student experience is to increase student access to educators.

With all of the additional costs passed onto students, one might assume that McMaster would make an effort to improve the educational experience. Sadly the exact opposite is the case. As was previously disclosed by CUPE 3906, the Faculty of Humanities has already made significant and deep cuts, removing all minors, laying-off numerous experienced Sessional Faculty members, and combining classes to make super-sized classes. You can find more about the cuts here: <>. McMaster’s current action plan is to remove its best educators, increase educational costs, and increase class sizes, all while accepting government funding to improve “accessibility and quality”. This mix is a recipe for a complete educational disaster.

To begin to steer this university back onto the right track, we’ve proposed that the student to TA ratio be capped at 25:1 in tutorials, 15:1 in labs and 60: 1 for marking. These upper limits are designed to ensure that all students get reasonable access to their educators and also get good feedback on the work they submit. We feel that undergraduate students deserve a quality education for the money and time they invest in their degrees.

The caps also have a secondary benefit of reducing the significant overwork faced by most TAs. A graduate teaching assistant is only paid for at most 260 hours of work per year, but teaching assistants are dedicated to the cause of higher education and often work well above and beyond their paid hours. As TAs, we’re often caught between our desire to provide a quality education to students and the minimal time in which we’re given to do it. In fact, at 260 hours per full TA, McMaster provides among the least educational support of major Canadian universities.

The McMaster University community is a whole ecosystem of interdependent workers, students and educators. We all have a stake in the future of this university. By standing together we can affect positive change and reform this ailing institution.

In solidarity,

The CUPE 3906 Bargaining Team

4 Responses to “Quality of Education”

  1. I understand and applaud the wish of TA’s to improve education at Mac… However, if the means to achieve their end is a strike, it is negatively affecting students WAY more than large class sizes etc. As a student I would love to have smaller class sizes and more time available to TA’s, but more than anything I want to be able to go to school and not have my education disrupted by people who say it is in my best interest… it is not!

  2. […] McMaster’s graduate TAs are hired for chunks of 260 hours over two academic terms, unfortunately this is amongst the lowest number of paid hours for graduate TAs in Ontario. The reality is the actual work that needs to be done is pretty similar across all universities and most TAs see their jobs as “work until the work is done,” as they don’t want to hurt the quality of education for their students. As a result, most TAs significantly work beyond their paid hours. The union has proposed to raise the number of paid hours and cap the student to TA ratio in labs, tutorials and for marking. The goal of these proposals is to get undergraduate students more access to TAs and to give TAs the opportunity to properly comment on student work while reducing the incidence of overwork. The way that the TA hiring system is currently setup means that 5th and 6th year Ph.D students are actually the least likely to be hired as TAs. We don’t think this makes any sense as these students are likely to be the most knowledgeable and most experienced TAs, so we’ve got a proposal to ensure these upper year students get offered TA positions, if they desire them. Read more about quality of education : here. […]

  3. The quality of our education must be defended! To say nothing would be to accept the university’s strategy to jam pack our classrooms while still demanding more of our money! They are taking advantage of the passivity and apathy of the student body in order to justify their neglect of the deteriorating quality of our education. I know students don’t want a strike but how much shit are we willing to take from the administration before we take a stand and support our TAs and their legitimate demands?? The longer we wait, the more our education declines and the harder it will be to restore. A sacrafice on behalf of students now is necessary to ensure respect and diginity for our students and TAs in the future.

  4. In my experience it is not graduate students who offer the most knowledge or care for my education. Instead, it is the undergraduate TA’s who have the material more freshly reviewed and have an up to date understanding of the course. In my 40+ courses taken at McMaster, undergraduate T.A.s have often been the ones who care more about my education. More often then not they want to be that T.A. that is useful and helpful. They are more connected with their students and are not years removed from the students social or work environments. There always seems to be a large discrepancy between a graduate T.A.’s potential knowledge and his apathy towards their students.

    With that in mind, I don’t think that the amount of pay the T.A. receives has the major impact on the quality of our education. A good T.A. wants to help and does not necessarily mind giving their time past paid hours. I know that I gladly helped people as a T.A. while on overtime. I also knew that I wasn’t supposed to expect compensation for that because I was going above and beyond what the job required. Personally, I believe I was a good T.A. and so did my students (many of whom I later tutored privately in other courses).

    The issue with educational quality, then, is that neither the university or CUPE provides any form of T.A. quality control. T.A.s are not teachers; they do not understand how to operate a classroom. Most of them are at McMaster for a Graduate degree and suffer from communication problems, apathy, or general lack preparedness/knowledge. For some, is ‘strongly recommended’ by their supervising professor. For others they take the job as a way to earn a little more money with little time commitment. In both cases it seems that the T.A.’s competence is rarely judged.

    So even if the strike is successful: T.A.s receive more disposable income and benefits, more T.A.s are hired to minimize student to T.A. ratio, etc. I do not see how the educational quality at McMaster will increase. Instead you will have large group of overpaid people who will, in random ratios, be useful or not.

    As a side note, as a T.A. I was offered a single seminar on how to manage a class. I do not know if this is still in place or has been replaced by a more robust system but a single seminar does not provide the necessary training to make an incompetent T.A. competent.

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