Mike Hermida

Across Canada, post-secondary tuition fees have been on the rise. All the while, thousands of contract faculty are overworked and underpaid.

According to Stats Canada’s blog The Daily, the average undergraduate tuition for full-time students has gone up 3.1 per cent since the last academic year. Graduate students saw an average increase of 1.8 per cent since 2016-2017. Specific tuition fees vary from program to program, and from province to province. Particularly hard-hit were students in Nova Scotia (a 5.5 percent increase for undergrads, 2.8 percent for grads), law and architecture students (4 percent), and graduate students in personal, protective, and transportation services (a whopping 94.7 percent).

Percentage change for average tuition fees by province.
Source: Statistics Canada

To make matters worse, all students have to make compulsory payments to their universities, such as athletic fees and a payment to their student association. On average these fees have gone up by 3.8 per cent and 4.2 per cent for undergraduate and graduate students respectively. Compulsory payments only add to the already problematic student debt.

It should not be forgotten that a large part of the burden is being paid by international students. The Higher Education Strategy Associates reported that, from 2006 to 2016, “domestic student tuition has increased at roughly inflation plus 2% every year, international student tuition fees have been rising at inflation plus 4%.” As pointed out by an August 2018 article by Policy Opinions, this reliance on international students to subsidise Canadian higher education has its consequences. It attracts universities towards engineering, business and the sciences: programs that attract international students. Simultaneously, it pushes away health, social science and humanities.

Graeber explains that a bullshit job is any job that is useless. It can be because the employee only pretends to work, or because their job in unnecessary.

Despite this increase in fees, universities still find a way to offer poor work conditions to their contract faculty. As stated in a September article from The Star, part-time professors in Canadian universities are on the rise. These workers are on contract salaries, meaning that they have no guarantee if they will be hired again the next year. Almost half of contract faculty have non-academic side jobs. An additional 16 percent of them work at more than one academic institution. Furthermore, part-time professors of gendered and racialized groups are more likely to be overworked.

Meanwhile, Ontario universities are raising the salaries of senior and middle-income administrators, as well as creating more administrative positions. For example, high-income administrators from the University of Ottawa (excluding top executives because their wages are frozen), got an average 3.4 percent from 2009 to 2015, according to a Leveller article from March, 2018. By comparison, the average Ontario taxpayer’s salary has only increased 1.9 per cent over the same time period, while the inflation rate in the country is roughly two per cent per year.

The parallel events of tuition hikes and administrative salary increases can be explained through London School of Economics professor David Graeber’s theory of “bullshit jobs.”

In an interview with The Real News titled “5 Types of Bullsh*t Jobs,” Graeber explains that a bullshit job is any job that is useless. It can be because the employee only pretends to work, or because their job in unnecessary.

This is accompanied by lower salaries and benefits for the rest of the labor force: those who do do meaningful work (e.g. teaching, producing something, or working in the service or care industry).

In a 2013 article in STRIKE! Magazine, which eventually grew into his book Bullshit Jobs, Graeber argues there has been a stark rise in these “bullshit jobs” between 1910 and 2000. Automation predictably led to the decline of industrial and farming jobs, with “‘professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers’” rising steadily. This has led to a ballooning of meaningless administrative jobs that are, ultimately, “bullshit.”

For Graeber, self-replicating administrative bloat shows that “the market isn’t always right.” As he told Jacobin, “clearly the market in labor does not work in an economically rational way,” when so many people wrote to him, after his original article appeared, to describe getting paid “$40,000 a year to sit and make cat memes all day and maybe take a phone call.”

Graeber cites studies showing that the average American office worker only spends 39 percent of their time on the job doing the work they’re paid for, and that 40 percent of people “already think their jobs are completely pointless.”

One of the reasons Graeber gives for this phenomenon is a worldview where jobs that make products (e.g. manufacturers) or that employ people (e.g. university presidents) are valued more than service jobs (e.g. professors).

Graeber’s analysis of ballooning bureaucracy, paired with policies of public austerity, goes a long way to explaining rising student fees. Student fees are going up – disproportionately affecting international students – and working conditions for contract faculty are going down. Universities nonetheless find a way to pay their administrators more and create new administrative roles.

The example of Germany proves that another way is possible. The country pays university tuition for its young people, while keeping the overall per-student cost of an degree half the price of Canadian universities.

We can and should demand more.

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