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Front-Loading Tuition: CUPE 4600 Battles Admin at the Bargaining Table

by Daniel Huang

In August 2016, CUPE 4600 — the union representing teaching assistants and contract instructors at Carleton University — began bargaining for new collective agreements with management. Negotiations between the parties are ongoing and steady progress has been made. However, on Dec. 15, 2016, Carleton requested a provincially appointed conciliation officer to assist in negotiations. This indicates that Carleton wishes to conclude negotiations quickly.

CUPE 4600 shares this wish with Carleton but it will staunchly defend the welfare of its members. For teaching assistants (TAs) who bargain with the university independently from the contract instructors in CUPE 4600, the major issue at stake is a mechanism that helps keep tuition fee increases at bay, the so-called Tuition Increase Assistance (TIA).  

For many CUPE 4600 members, TA wages largely offset the cost of tuition. As the vast majority of TAs are graduate students, the lion’s share of a TA’s salary returns to the university’s coffers as tuition payments. What little is left of a TA’s salary is meant to feed and shelter the student employee as they complete their program. The average net income for a TA amounts to around $1,500 per year.

While CUPE 4600 can fight for the pay rates and benefits of its members, the union has no say over the amount of tuition Carleton charges. In 1996, a semester in a Master of Arts program cost $1,472; twenty years later, the cost is $3,647.

One of the ways CUPE 4600 tries to keep higher education affordable is to protect its members from the yearly increases in tuition. Thus, one of the most significant concerns for teaching assistants is the TIA, which is meant to protect TAs from tuition increases while they are employed at Carleton.

The TIA is only available to a TA after their first year of employment. It is designed to compensate TAs for tuition increases since their starting date. Since its inception, the TIA has been made increasingly complicated to calculate. CUPE 4600 maintains that Carleton has manipulated the tuition schedule to try and hide the increases appearing on a TA’s fee statement by adding extra costs to the first year so that overall tuition increases are maintained at around five per cent annually. This is what is described as “front-loaded” tuition in that expected annual increases are loaded onto the first year.

In 2015, CUPE 4600 filed a grievance against front-loaded tuition and the university paid back hundreds of thousands of dollars that had been withheld from TAs.

In this round of bargaining, the issue of front-loading has propped up again.

An update on Carleton’s Collective Bargaining Updates website says: “The university has tabled a proposal that would fully protect eligible teaching assistants from tuition increases from their second year of employment within their current program.” However, this statement is misleading.

The current tuition framework allows differentiation of fees based on one’s program and program year. The significant implication of this framework is that students in their first year of study will pay a different tuition fee compared to students in upper-year studies. The fact that Carleton has two different tuitions, one for first-year and one for upper-year, allows the university to perform accounting tricks that distort the actual increase of tuition fees and hold back protections bestowed by the TIA.

The most significant of these tricks is in the formula for calculating tuition fee increases. The formula for calculating increases to the first-year tuition fee is simple and predictable. The increase is the difference between the current year and the previous year’s first-year tuition fee.

Now, calculating for increases of upper-year tuition leans more toward obfuscation rather than simplicity. Here, the increase in tuition is the difference in tuition that students will pay when they move from their first-year to upper-year of studies. Carleton’s proposal will reduce the TIA to a system that would be capped regardless of how much tuition has increased while a TA works at Carleton. Put simply, upper-year tuition can increase as much as the administration wants it to so long as it does not exceed first-year tuition rates. Under this framework, Carleton can thus report that there was no upper-year tuition increase, in spite of ceaselessly front-loading tuition.

In 2016, Carleton reported a five per cent tuition increase to the first-year tuition of a full-time domestic student in their Master’s of Engineering program, from $3,127 to $3,283 per term. In the same report, Carleton claimed a zero per cent increase to the upper-year tuition, even though the fee increased from $2,979 to $3,127 (a five per cent increase).

Under Carleton’s proposed TIA system, no student is protected from the increase in tuition in the year they enter university and all TAs enrolled in two-year programs will not receive protection from tuition increases.

Carleton proposed this new TIA along with other monetary issues, then filed for conciliation before CUPE 4600 had a chance to respond. When the parties meet again, it will be in front of the conciliator and CUPE 4600 will present its own TIA and monetary proposals to Carleton.

CUPE 4600 has represented the TAs of Carleton since 1979 and has negotiated over 15 collective agreements with Carleton without a strike or lockout and the union hopes that this round of bargaining will end in security for the welfare of the union and public education in general.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 9, No. 4 (January/February 2017).

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