This profile provides CUPE members with information about the sector they work in from a national perspective.
CUPE represents 63,000 members in over 230 bargaining units in the post-secondary education (PSE) sector. Our members work in universities, colleges and student-led organizations.
CUPE PSE members work in a wide variety of positions. We represent academic workers and support staff alike. Academic workers include instructors, researchers, teaching assistants and lab techs; support staff work in grounds and building maintenance, libraries, food services, caretaking, information technology, clerical support and administration.
Before COVID-19 struck, more than 430,000 people worked at universities, colleges, vocational and trade institutions in Canada. CUPE is a major union in universities, representing non-faculty employees. CUPE has far fewer members in colleges, but we have a significant number of college members in BC and Quebec.
Despite overwhelming evidence that investing in PSE makes sense for Canada’s social and economic well-being, both provincial and federal governments are persistently underfunding PSE.
Universities and colleges have seen their proportion of government funding plummet since the 1980s. In 1982, 83 per cent of university operating revenue came from government funding. Today, it accounts for only 50 per cent. The federal government’s per-student contribution (adjusted for inflation) has dropped from $3,291 per student in 1992-93 to just $2,020 per student in 2016-17.
The difference is being made up by tuition increases, corporate donations and contracts, and more precarious work.
Over the past 30 years, tuition fees for university undergraduates have doubled, even after accounting for inflation. Compulsory fees have also nearly doubled. Governments provide direct support to students to help with tuition, in the form of grants, loans, scholarships, and tax credits, but much of this funding is poorly targeted or back-ended, with students forced to pay up front and wait for a tax credit or loan forgiveness to come a year – or even years – later.
Funding for Quebec universities comes from the provincial government (49.9%), the federal government (20.9%), students (16.4%) and other sources (12.9%). Under the Plan d’action pour la réussite en enseignement supérieur 2021-2026, the Quebec government is allocating an additional $450 million over this five-year period.
However, most provinces are seeing further cuts to PSE. In Alberta, the UCP government has reduced funding to all post-secondary institutions across the board. In Saskatchewan, while the 2021-22 budget allocated a much-needed funding boost, the 2022-23 signals a return to the Saskatchewan Party government’s historic pattern of budget freezes and cuts to PSE institutions. In Newfoundland Labrador, the government has announced big cuts to MUN budget, as well as plans to allow for increase of tuition for students which has been frozen for a decade. In Nova Scotia, tuition continues to increase and remains among the highest in the country.
Declining government funding and an increasingly corporate mindset among PSE administrators have contributed to an increased reliance on precarious forms of employment by universities and colleges.
Research by CUPE shows that 54 per cent of faculty appointments in Canadian universities have been contract, rather than permanent. Part-time, casual or temporary terms of work are also growing in support work as well. In some cases, universities and colleges are using attrition to get around collective agreement language preventing layoffs in order to replace permanent positions with casual and temporary positions.
Canada’s post-secondary institutions have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. By fall 2021, most campuses across the country re-opened, after having all instruction online for more than one year and research activities severely curtailed. Support staff in food services, maintenance, operations, libraries, and custodial services have been redeployed, furloughed, or laid off. Contract instructors had their contracts for summer and fall courses cancelled.
Outsourcing and privatization
Privatizing or contracting out services is another favourite tactic of administrators. The majority of Canadian post-secondary institutions engage in contracting out. At some institutions, entire sectors such as food service and custodial services have been contracted out to companies that pay workers very low wages and fail to provide good benefits and pensions.
Our report, Who Pays? The cost of contracting out at Canadian post-secondary institutions, notes that 83.7 per cent of post-secondary institutions have contracted out some or all food services, while 61 per cent have contracted out some or all custodial services. Half have contracted out both food and custodial services. Contracting out has a detrimental impact on workers. The report found that contracting out takes more than $1,000 a month out of workers’ pockets, in addition to costing them pensions, sick days, and other benefits.
The extent of privatization includes student instruction. At several universities, private, for-profit colleges offer courses that can be used toward public university degrees. A number of for-profit, private colleges have also signed deals that allow them to offer students a diploma from a publicly-funded college when they complete their studies.
Many CUPE locals are fighting against the contracting out of services currently provided by members. In NB, a local representing custodians was decertified through contract flipping in 2020-2021. In Ontario, CUPE had success in bringing back in house contracted out services such as academic support services, food services, cleaning and maintenance at several universities.
The decline in public funding has led many post-secondary institutions to accept corporate donations and contracts that come with strings attached. In some cases, this has even meant control over hiring, firing, research results and academic curriculum. Because of a lack of transparency on the part of many colleges and universities, the public doesn’t know whether or not the donor has been given control over employees or academic processes.
Management and administration of universities and colleges is also increasingly corporatized. Appointments to Boards of Governors heavily favour corporate executives. In Ontario, they now outnumber academics and other external appointees. At many schools, the number of senior administrative appointments is expanding, along with their compensation packages. In spring 2022, the Saskatchewan government passed Bill 61, a bill that could lead to “performance-based funding.” Post-secondary institutions also entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Saskatchewan government that ties funding to revenue generation and requires consideration of private and for-profit funding sources and models.
Health and Safety
Many campuses reopened amidst the pandemic. CUPE worked to ensure that employers and members continued to implement leading practices to prevent workplace exposure to COVID-19. However, in Ontario, universities reopened without any consultation with unions. The Reopening Ontario Act was amended to allow universities to operate without any distancing requirements inside classrooms. BC, and other provinces, navigated issues including students being among the last to receive vaccinations, vaccination and mask mandates, and rapid testing.
Sexual Harassment and Violence
Everyone has the right to work, live, and learn in a safe environment. Sexual violence and harassment are serious matters that impact all members of the workplace, the union, and the campus community.
CUPE is committed to addressing and preventing sexual violence in our workplaces. There are unique factors to consider when it comes to post-secondary institutions. CUPE created Tools on Sexual Violence and Harassment in Post-Secondary Education to assist and support local executives, union stewards, and members to navigate the process of responding to and preventing sexual violence and harassment within the sector.
In Ontario, a Ministry of Colleges and Universities consultation showed that the government is trying to seek more punitive measures rather than building a culture of consent on campus. In 2021, Ontario moved to prohibit universities from asking students who are victims of sexual assault and violence to disclose if they were intoxicated at the time of the incident.
Wages and benefits
The loss of government funding also has significant impacts on the wages, benefits and working conditions of workers, including CUPE members. Precarious work, outsourcing, privatization and corporatization are all on the rise in PSE. CUPE continues to face challenging rounds of bargaining due to underfunding in the sector. Despite this CUPE continues to fight for fair wages, stable working conditions and access to pensions and benefits for members in the context of the pandemic and increased cost of living.
In Alberta, the UCP has a mandate for all post-secondary institutions of 0% (effective July 1, 2021 and 2022), 1.25% (effective April 1, 2023), and 1.5% (effective Dec. 1, 2023). There is an additional 0.5% subject to Gain Sharing Formula which is tied to Alberta’s Real Gross Domestic Product.
In Saskatchewan, negotiating better rates of pay, stable work hours and improved working conditions for Facilities and Program Assistants (FAPA) staff have been a priority.
Some BC locals addressed temporary layoffs with a CERB top-up that allowed for benefit continuation and employment continuity. BC’s university locals will focus on wages and the significant increase in CPI and cost-of-living.
CUPE has had some organizing successes including the International Programs Teaching Staff at the University of Toronto’s New College in 2020. There have been organizing drives including at Concordia University of Edmonton, with contract academic workers at the University of Waterloo and with part-time events staff at the University Students’ Council of the University of Western Ontario.
Most university pension plans are employer-sponsored. Most college plans are multi-employer plans established and regulated through provincial legislation. For the most part, these are defined benefit pension plans. Since the 2008 recession, employers have attacked pension plans by cutting benefits and shifting risk to employees, most notably by moving from defined benefit plans to defined contribution or target benefit plans.
Three Ontario universities – University of Guelph, University of Toronto and Queen’s University – established the University Pension Plan (UPP), a joint sponsored, multi-employer pension plan. CUPE staff and local leaders worked to ensure that this new pension plan will continue to provide members with a secure and stable retirement plan. As more universities re-examine their pension arrangements, many other CUPE locals could be involved in discussions with their employers about to joining the UPP. CUPE will work with locals to ensure that they have a strong voice in these discussions.
In Newfoundland, Memorial University is moving toward establishing joint sponsorship and joint control of their pension plan.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed long-standing issues within Canada’s post-secondary education system. These issues include years of underfunding, rising cost of education, corporatization and research funding gaps.
The pandemic also revealed the vulnerability of international students. On top of paying three to four times the cost of domestic tuition, they had to choose between staying in Canada without economic support, or returning home, potentially unable to return to Canada for some time.
CUPE launched the Education for All campaign to call on federal, provincial and territorial governments to work together on a national plan for education that is publicly funded, accessible, and high quality.
Recommendations include boosting federal funding for post-secondary education by a minimum of $3 billion and ensuring that funding keeps up with inflation and enrolment growth. Governments must also eliminate interest rates on student loan repayments while reducing and eventually eliminating tuition fees. Limits must be placed on the sector’s use of precarious job contracts, contracting out and privatization.
The Education for All campaign is a joint initiative of CUPE, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the Canadian Federation of Students, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, and the National Union of Public and General Employees. Together, our combined memberships of more than one million students and workers are putting forward a vision of a more affordable, accessible, high quality, publicly-funded post-secondary education system in Canada.
There is also a local campaign to raise awareness on mental health issues and resources in Saskatchewan. In BC, the Post-Secondary Cost-Share campaign launched in October 2021 with ads that generated more than one million views.