Faculty members at Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, began strike action this week to protest inadequate salaries and staffing, which they say have created unfair teaching conditions. The strike action, which began on 4 March, has left almost 14,500 Dalhousie students without lectures, labs, or tutorials.

The Dalhousie Faculty Association (DFA), representing almost 780 full-time professors, librarians, and other academic staff, has been engaged in protracted contract negotiations with the administration since June 2001, when their previous collective agreement expired. Negotiations came to a grinding halt in February this year, when the DFA and the university failed to reach an agreement on the key issues of salaries and the number of teaching positions in each faculty, as well as a host of other topics such as parental leave, nondiscrimination, flexible retirement, technology-assisted classes, and peer review in tenure cases.

The DFA is insisting that the administration replace full-time faculty that leave the university during the 3-year life of the next collective agreement. The union claims that a 10% decline in the number of full-time faculty since 1990--a period during which student enrollment increased by 53%--is eroding the quality of education, and it wants the university to halt the decline.

The university, meanwhile, maintains that it cannot meet this demand, as it simply does not have the money to hire the number of professors that the DFA is requesting. "The university must retain the flexibility to hire faculty in the areas where they are most needed, particularly where there is increasing enrolment, rather than on a one-for-one basis", says Stacey Lewis, spokesperson for the university. "We need to be able to match faculty and financial resources with evolving student need", she says.

The DFA, citing a survey that it performed recently, is also seeking an increase in salary of 10.8% over the next 3 years. The DFA survey found that faculty salaries at Dalhousie rank near the bottom of the salary scale across Canada. According to DFA president Andy Wainwright, the noncompetitive compensation creates a serious recruitment and retention problem, which in turn affects the quality of education provided at the university. The proposed raise will improve the competitiveness of Dalhousie faculty salaries with other institutions. Lewis, however, says that when benefits are factored in to the equation, that figure climbs to 27%--an increase that she says the university cannot afford, and considerably higher than the overall 16.7% compensation increase that the university offered the DFA. The university's complete offer, Lewis says, factors in items such as a pay increase, adjustments to minimum/maximum salaries for position rankings, increases related to promotions, and extra payments for overload teaching.

"The university understands that it needs to have a settlement that is fair to both the faculty in compensation, facilities, and services, and to students, in terms of their financial and academic expectations. We are working hard to achieve that balance", Lewis tells Next Wave Canada. The real problem for the university, she explains, lies in the fact that the level of operating grants from the Nova Scotia government on a per-student basis are the lowest in the country, and have declined more than 20% in the last decade.

Earlier this year, the university distributed a memo to students warning that without an increase in grants from the provincial government, it will be forced to balance the budget with tuition increases of 6% to 8 % and cut faculty budgets by 2% to 3% this year. The university is now stating that if it were to meet DFA's salary and staffing demands, the tuition increase could go as high as 17% in September, ranging from $800 to $1400 per student depending on the program. This comes as sobering news for undergraduate and grad students at Dalhousie, who already pay the highest tuition fees in the country. Wainwright tells Next Wave Canada that he thinks the money is already available at Dalhousie to deal with faculty demands, and DFA does not believe it is necessary to place the financial burden on the shoulders of students. "The board's threat to raise tuition fees by up to $1400 is irresponsible and a scare tactic designed to frighten students and parents", he opines.

Fiona Morag-Harper, a doctoral student in biology, is not surprised that the university is threatening higher tuition, because "increases in tuition fees have become par for the course". "Many people are tired of protesting because their voices fall on deaf ears", she says. Some disgruntled students showed their support for faculty at the picket lines, bringing donuts to protestors braving the cold weather. One student walked the picket on Tuesday with a sign depicting an empty chair.

"Graduate students are very supportive of the faculty's demands", Morag-Harper tells Next Wave Canada. She believes that the academics have a difficult time coping with large class sizes and years of budget cuts, and she thinks that Dalhousie "does not deserve the good reputation it has" in terms of the quality of education it offers. "The first-year biology classes are too big", she explains, "and the labs are severely underfunded, such that many of the activities are reminiscent of labs I had during high school".

For the time being, it's 'business as usual' for most graduate students. "Most of us in biology are used to working independently from our supervisors", says Morag-Harper. But she admits that the fact that research grants are now frozen could "obviously cause some problems, depending upon the duration of the strike".

An end to the strike may not come anytime soon, according to Stephen Cheung, an assistant professor in kinesiology at the university. His impression from the picket line is that faculty members are shrouded in a sense of "fatalism," this being the fourth strike at Dalhousie University since 1988. The messages emanating from both sides, says Cheung, suggest that it could be a long and bitter battle.