Ontario faculty associations say they’re consulting with lawyers after being stonewalled in their attempts to meet with the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities about proposed legislation they say threatens to force elderly university and colleges professors to work for no salary.

The Doug Ford government made clear in its April budget it intends to block members of this group from collecting a pension and salary at the same time. The government says it wants to target older employees, who often earn salaries in the range of $150,000, in the name of faculty renewal.

Under regulations proposed in the budget bill, the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities would be given unprecedented power to unilaterally cut to zero the salary of anyone employed at a postsecondary institution who is also drawing a pension.

But in order to do so, the ministry would likely have to override collective agreements and essentially force professors to work for nothing, except for the pension to which they’re already entitled. According to federal law, anyone with a pension is required to take it by the age of 71.

“Our number one concern is the power this gives the minister to reach into collective agreements and change the terms,” said Gyllian Phillips, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA). Ms. Phillips added that several attempts to meet with the minister, Merrilee Fullerton, have been met with silence.

The government says the move would foster renewal in the teaching ranks, make institutions more financially sustainable and usher in new research methods that would benefit students. The ministry said it would be holding consultations in late spring and early summer.

“This is about creating a system that encourages the hiring of a new generation of faculty and staff to help students gain the skills they need to get jobs in the modern economy,” said Stephanie Rea, a spokeswoman for Minister Fullerton.

The Council of Ontario Universities said it has had conversations with government “on sustainability and faculty renewal.”

Michael Conlon, executive director of OCUFA, said the organization is still examining its legal options. Although the government has made clear its intent, many of the details have not been articulated.

Simon Archer, a Toronto labour lawyer, said in his experience it’s unprecedented for the government to target such a small number of workers to prevent them from collecting a salary and pension. The policy is likely to be challenged on the grounds it violates the Charter right to freedom of association in collective bargaining, he said.

“Is it legal? That is going to be the big question,” Mr. Archer said. “To override collectively bargained rights is a very high threshold.”

“This is a very small number of people. It won’t save any real money. We’re not clear why this is such a priority,” Mr. Conlon said.

Since mandatory retirement was abolished in 2005, the number of professors working past the age of 65 has ballooned. A national survey found that in 2016-17, more than 10 per cent of full-time university faculty were 65 and older, up from less than 2 per cent in 2000-01. Figures supplied by OCUFA showed about 4 per cent of university faculty in Ontario, or roughly 600 people, were 70 or older in 2017-18.

Professors in their later years are often criticized because they’re at the peak of their earnings, but perceived to perform at less than their peak as teachers, researchers or administrators.

Frances Woolley, professor of economics at Carleton University, is in favour of breaking up what she has called “the quarter-million-dollar club,” referring to an estimate of typical earnings from salary and pension for a tenured faculty member older than 70.

“At 71, not many people are still at the frontiers of research. A junior person who just got a PhD would probably do a better job. Not in every case, but in most,” Prof. Woolley said.

David MacGregor, a retired sociologist, fought for years to see an end to mandatory retirement. There has always been opposition toward allowing professors to work beyond 65, he said, because the job is seen to be so soft and comfortable. When the United States ended mandatory retirement, professors were a bone of contention and it was the same when Ontario outlawed mandatory retirement in 2005, he said.

He said in his case he wasn’t hired until his late 30s, didn’t have a child until his 40s and didn’t feel ready to end his career until his early 70s.

“I was one of those that everyone was afraid of, but my teaching ratings remained high and I continued to publish,” he said. “I don’t regret retiring and I don’t regret that I kept working. I think everybody should have that opportunity.”

The Globe and Mail, May 13, 2019