Monday, October 19, 2015

Guest Spotlight: The Crisis Goes Deeper Than We Think, part 2

This is the second of a two-part spotlight on the crisis in higher education written by Sarah Waurechen. The first part, originally published at rabble.ca, was posted Friday and can be read here. 
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Teachers who work in Continuing Education in Quebec CEGEPs, like adjuncts who work in the universities across North America, continually face a dilemma: how do you strike a balance between the need to protect yourself and the need to protect your students? The short answer is, you don’t. Most of us perform significant amounts of free labour in order to provide the extra support that will help our students succeed, sacrificing our personal time and private lives at the altar of higher education in the process.

I’m not sure that this would be healthy even if it did work, but the issue is that it clearly doesn’t work. The number of vulnerable students is on the rise, and students who need extra guidance and protection from the realities of budget cuts and restructuring are legion. Teachers simply cannot help them all. There are no more compromises to be made, and every attempt to protect one student seems to end up hurting another.

I work at a Cegep where the size of the Continuing Education program has doubled in the last decade. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 30% of the overall student body is now registered in Continuing Education classes, which means studying in the evening or on weekends. These classes attract mature students, immigrants who are trying to integrate into Quebec society, and a growing number of working-class individuals who just can’t afford to study full time or during the day.

The demographics of Continuing Education therefore mean that these students tend to need more help, not less. Continuing Education students are tired because they work all day and then go to school for 3-4 hours at night. They eat on route or during break, and sometimes have difficulty staying awake through class. Some of them have small children or sick family members to care for at home; others are sick themselves, or are members of the LGBT community and navigating the troubled waters of identity politics.

Despite this, I am not paid to answer their emails or meet with them during office hours. Continuing Education students are, instead, left to fend for themselves. And while my colleagues and I do our best to help them via informal consultation, there are simply more students who need help than there are hours in a day. 

More troubling still, students who are suffering from emotional distress, or those in need of serious career advice, need more specialized help than a teacher can provide.  But Continuing Education students don’t have reliable access to the services that could help them with these problems. This is because Counseling Services and Academic Advising both close before night school begins.

As the provincial government has reduced funding and imposed austerity measures on Quebec CEGEPs, teachers and professionals have made compromises. The availability of support services has failed to keep up with demand, but the services themselves do remain available. And although positions aren’t replaced as people retire, everyone else has tried to pick up the slack.

But these compromises have not been enough to protect everyone, and they have been made with an eye to regular day-division programs. Facing a very real lack of resources, colleges like my own have therefore been forced to rely on the funds generated by Continuing Education to make ends meet.

Once you understand this reality, the expansion of Continuing Education makes sense because Continuing Education is very profitable. Students in night or weekend classes still pay student fees that help fund things like Counseling Services and Academic Advising, even if they can’t get to school while those services are open. They also pay a certain amount of money per course, if they’re not full-time. And don’t forget, the teachers who work in Continuing Education are paid only half the salary of their counterparts who teach during the day.

In sum, we’ve created a context wherein colleges are encouraged to turn to exploitative systems like Continuing Education in order to keep everything else running the way it should. We’ve reached the point where the only way I have left to protect my students is to advocate for them, and for myself. Making more compromises would make me even more complicit in the system than I already am – and I cannot allow that to happen. For me at least, it’s time stand up, raise my voice, and fight.

Sarah Waurechen has a PhD in early modern British history from Queen's University, Kingston. She has taught courses on a contract basis at the University of Alberta, Queen's University, and McGill University, and currently works as a Continuing Education instructor at Dawson College in Montreal.

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