Issues on the Table: Workload

From 2011 to 2019, undergraduate student enrolment at the University of Lethbridge rose by about 5%. Enrolments have temporarily dropped back to 2011 levels during the pandemic, but given the work required for sudden changes between in-person and online learning environments, there is no doubt that workload related to undergraduate students has increased by at least 5% over the past decade. Graduate student numbers have risen more than 50% since 2011. Meanwhile, continuing academic staff positions have decreased by more than 7% over the same period (from 490 to 454). Unsurprisingly, this decline has left academic staff feeling significant increases in the pressure of their workload.

The Problem

The Collective Agreement contains powerful language in Article 13 (Rights and Responsibilities) relating to workload. Article 13.03 states that Deans will create and publish policies and procedures, and will apply them in an attempt

“to ensure that the total amount of work undertaken by each Member… shall be reasonable and roughly equivalent in terms of the time and effort required for competent performance of that work.” 

Unfortunately, despite this language, such policies and procedures do not seem to exist. There is also no clear indication of what it means for a Member’s workload to be “reasonable”. 

Members have raised many concerns about inequitable and unreasonable work assignments; these have led to a number of active grievances. ULFA has consulted with members on workload and has run surveys to better understand the problem. There are some concerning numbers and responses, and better data are required to fully understand the problems and create solutions. It was clear from the very first discussions during the development of ULFA’s bargaining mandate that workload was an issue that needed to be addressed.

The Positions

While preparing its bargaining mandate, ULFA’s Bargaining Resource Committee examined collective agreements across the country, trying to find examples of agreements that did a good job of placing reasonable and equitable limitations on workload. There was also extensive consultation with members from different U of L faculties about factors that should be considered when evaluating workload. These consultations revealed a multitude of variables that impact workload even within the restricted context of teaching, including for example scheduled course contact hours, type of course (lecture/lab/tutorial/music instruction, etc.), numbers of students enrolled, graduate student supervision, disciplinary variations in the workload required for supervision, and supervision of independent studies courses and honours theses. Workload language found in other contracts did not adequately address disciplinary differences that our members encounter.

In the end, ULFA determined that developing appropriate new language to place reasonable limits on workload was not feasible in the timeframe available to prepare bargaining positions for the current round of negotiations. Instead, ULFA decided to propose that Deans provide information about the factors they are currently considering in their endeavours to make workload reasonable and roughly equivalent across members. The goal is to use this information and further consultation with members to prepare workload language to propose in the next round of bargaining, as well as to ensure equity and transparency in decanal decisions around assignment of duties.

Regarding workload, ULFA’s proposal asks that Deans provide the union with copies of the policies and procedures they have developed on workload, along with an explanation of the guidelines being used. The desired information includes a list of the variables being considered in the Dean’s assessment of workload, and rationales explaining the extent to which each of these variables is deemed to impact workload.

In response, the Board has provided ULFA with written assurances that it will “recommit” to actually implementing the existing language in Article 13 that ensures workload policies exist and are used to make workloads reasonable and equitable. The Board has agreed to have the Provost provide ULFA with these written policies and procedures, along with any written guidelines. To date, the Board has been unwilling to provide the explanations and rationales that ULFA is seeking.

The proposals on workload appear in Article 6 (Communication and Information). This article was presented at the negotiation table by ULFA on March 22, 2021 and by the Board on May 20, 2021. After several exchanges during mediation, ULFA presented it again on February 4, 2022, and it appeared in proposals exchanged by the Board and ULFA on February 8 and February 9, 2022, and was included in the most recent set of proposals from ULFA to the Board on February 12th, 2022.