I didn’t take time off from writing columns in the fall. Not deliberately, anyway. Time just snuck up on me… Now here I am in mid-January writing this.
What on earth was up with that crazy fall semester?
This was my ninth year as a faculty member. None of the six years prior to the pandemic were as busy or as full of projects and – dare I say it – optimism. Even though there was no chance of returning to pre-COVID normal, I had hoped that the new normal would be… different. After the most “normal” semester we’ve experienced since March 2020, there isn’t really cause for despair. Nevertheless, I’d like to draw your attention to a few trends – six to be exact – that will sour the outlook. I’m not a pessimist; it’s just that I’ve thrown away my rose-coloured glasses.
Facing the unknown
Let’s start with the persistence of certain work-related habits that developed during the pandemic. Two have jumped out at me since September:
- Telework and empty hallways – very noticeable when you come back to the university regularly;
- The time normally allowed for travel between meetings, or for breaks or meal times away from the computer, has vanished. As a result, it’s dangerously easy to move from one academic activity to the next without realizing that you haven’t taken into consideration three minutes for walking down a hallway, three minutes of elevator time (including the minute of standing around waiting), and another two minutes of stopping at the office and the bathroom before going to the next meeting.
These small changes seemed trivial in September but became more obvious over the semester, which brings me to my next point:
- Several colleagues and I did a little soul-searching to realize one thing: we fill our calendars more than we used to. Invitations are accepted (not always voluntarily), and these activities are done in addition to what was already a full workload. Anyone who becomes a university professor thinking they’ll be working 35 hours a week should revaluate if this is the profession for them. But colleagues and I came up with a little phrase that illustrates where we’re at: the pace that was considered a rush before the pandemic has become the new normal. Like they say, something’s gotta give.
The swell generated by these changes in working conditions is multiplied by an external factor, the fourth point:
4.We have inflation eating away at purchasing power, plus rising interest rates; together, these are weakening the financial situations of many members of the Canadian academic community.
Decision-makers are on the lookout for resources
Faculty and, more broadly, staff are not the only ones who are starting to sweat. Management teams (excluding university foundations) have every reason to be nervous, too, for two reasons:
- Labour shortages are hitting universities with a triple jab-hook-uppercut combo: labour market demand is reducing the attractiveness of university education and there’s political pressure to accelerate the entry of cohorts into training programs for undersupplied trades, while turnover rates and the cost of recruitment and retention are on the rise.
- Inflation is driving up operating costs, particularly energy, but also costs associated with construction, from materials to labour (in urban areas) to transportation (in more rural areas) and the cost of the time it takes to launch a project. While we’re here, let’s tip our hats to the entire supply sector. And by the way, institutions that use the bond market to balance budgets or finance future projects will feel the rise in interest rates for years to come.
Boiling point: collective bargaining
These six trends are occurring more or less simultaneously and, in many institutions, as a prelude to collective bargaining. Just about every time, employees demand wage hikes and changes to working conditions: that’s a given. What will mark the next cycle is the intensity of the demands, depending on the employee group. Imagine: in addition to bargaining around COVID work arrangements such as telework for support staff, salaries will also have to be addressed head-on at a time when this issue is vital for all parties. Even without demanding increases in salary scales, employees can’t ignore the fact that inflation is now rapidly eroding their purchasing power. However, the factors mentioned above will shrink the pie available to management for these negotiations. University funding formulas are relatively unresponsive and will take time to adjust. After all, collective bargaining – although it can generate quite a bit of tension – isn’t a crisis like COVID, is it?
Maybe not, but as COVID gradually shuffles over to become a routine fact of life alongside influenza, it leaves behind a lot of damage and many hasty decisions that continue to influence the post-COVID situation, which communities have to dig their way out of as best they can… as best we can.
Postscript: It looks like the Laurentian University saga is coming to an end. Time for a quasi post-mortem, don’t you think?