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Sympathy for students

The longer the UNBC faculty strike goes on, the more it looks like last year's strike by public school teachers. That's a bad omen for anxious students looking to still salvage what's left of the Winter 2015 semester.

The longer the UNBC faculty strike goes on, the more it looks like last year's strike by public school teachers. That's a bad omen for anxious students looking to still salvage what's left of the Winter 2015 semester.

Unlike the administration and board of trustees for School District 57, which had to sit on the sidelines because of provincial bargaining, UNBC leadership does have a seat at the table. That doesn't, however, mean that UNBC gets to cut the deal it wants with faculty. The province calls the shots in advanced education, just as it does in public education, when it comes to funding and the pay for unionized teachers and support staff. The Liberals have set their limits on pay increases for all public sector workers, including professors, and are unwilling to budge. On one hand, the Liberals say they are open to the collective bargaining process with public sector workers and with the other hand say the only choice is their offer or the picket line.

Christy Clark and her Liberal MLAs, including area representatives Shirley Bond and Mike Morris, did not back down after six weeks of closed public schools, involving more than half a million students at more than 1,000 schools across the province. There will be no compromise here, either.

Students calling on the Liberal government to intervene and settle this dispute are inviting the fox into the henhouse to settle a squabble over which chickens should get more feed. The Liberals stepping into this situation would end badly for both the university (reduced autonomy, programs arbitrarily slashed, less funding) and its faculty (back-to-work legislation, imposed wage settlement).

Like the teachers, the UNBC professors are striking for both principle and pay. Local professors are frustrated that they are paid less than their colleagues elsewhere and want that gap reduced. Their principle to be compensated more equitably is joined by a passion for education (we don't make widgets, we make minds and inspire our future leaders!) and the principle of standing up for what's right, particularly against a bully in the form of the Liberal government.

These are all noble principles worth defending but the demand for more pay can't be overlooked. For those who argue that education shouldn't be viewed as a business, they are overlooking the fact that all striking workers, including teachers and professors, make the business decision to withdraw services to their employer to support their demand for better compensation.

If that isn't a business decision, then what is?

UNBC's leadership must also accept blame for this situation. Canada's Green University can't expect top-notch research and teaching from its faculty without the pay and support that goes with it. That's not sustainable, to continue the environmental metaphor. If UNBC can't afford to be an elite school, then it has to be honest and transparent, with its faculty, its students and the community, about the level of service it can provide.

That is the school's business decision to make, although it seems past and current leadership have been unwilling to dispel the myth that more can be done with less, perhaps because they didn't want to contradict the marketing and recruitment messages used to attract students and faculty to UNBC.

Along with that honesty and transparency should come better communication on all sides because the current level is clearly inadequate.

If communication was better, professors and students wouldn't be criticizing the university's decision to spend $2 million on a cafeteria renovation because they'd understand that a $2 million capital expenditure, amortized over, say, 20 years costs$100,000 per year (plus borrowing costs, depreciation and so on) or the yearly salary of just one full professor.

If communication was better, university leaders would have been working with faculty years ago to address compensation issues, rather than letting the situation descend into the full-blown crisis it has become. This problem did not emerge overnight, it's been years in the making, which suggests mistrust and neglect.

For today's UNBC students, they've walked into a problem that began long before they enrolled and it likely won't be solved until long after they've left, if ever.

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