It may be far, but U of M’s issues beg a far-reaching question

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The labour strike at the University of Manitoba may seem a few provinces away, but over-enrolment, pressures on professors and suffering student experiences are problems that exist in our own backyard.

After nearly $11 million in budget cuts at U of M, students are paying their peers to get into courses and sitting on the floors of lecture halls. Faculty are receiving heavier workloads and began striking on Nov. 1 after collective bargaining talks fell through.  

As professors see their workloads surge, so do the salaries of the University’s topmost administrators, including president David Barnard — by nearly 50 per cent in the past five years.

Though this strike is the result of a complex issue, it comes down to the ongoing battle between universities as businesses and universities as teaching institutions. It’s concerning to see a university leaning too far into its identity as a corporate body and neglecting its role as a place of learning.

In some ways, it’s easy to see universities as businesses. It’s easy to see this dispute as maintaining the bottom line by cutting expenses. Students are customers who pay for their education, and universities have an obligation to uphold their end of the transaction. If they fail to offer students what they’re paying for, they can take their money elsewhere. 

On the other hand, likening universities to corporate structures cheapens the way we value higher education. The more we see a university degree as a product, the easier it is to equate a degree from a reputable university with a degree sent in the mail by an online college. If we start imagining a university as a business, education for the sake of education seems meaningless.  

But it doesn’t have to be one or the other. The quality of education deserves a place at the top of a university’s spending list in both scenarios. As a business, a university’s job is to make the product worth buying. As a body meant solely for learning, a university’s job is to ensure a quality education. 

Faculty members should be near the last to go when it comes to budget cuts. To sacrifice the wellbeing of faculty is to sacrifice the wellbeing of the students and in turn, the wellbeing of the entire institution. 

Students fighting to get into courses and sitting in the aisles of classes — this picture shouldn’t be completely unfamiliar to us. Queen’s isn’t a stranger to swelling enrolment rates and understaffed faculties. 

The way faculty and student needs are negotiated in this case could indicate how similar scenarios will pan out on campuses across the country. 

The strike at University Manitoba is a symptom of a bigger question about how going universities will remain universities first and businesses second moving forward.

Journal Editorial Board

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