Reflections on the Closure of the The Language Centre, Saint Mary’s University

Lauren McKenzie
CUPE 3912 Vice President, SMU, the Language Centre.


The first stop for most non-native English speaking students (NNESS) attending universities in Canada are language schools within the university. Language schools also act as a pipeline for international student tuition fees as learners are accepted conditionally to university programs upon completion of language courses, usually called ‘bridging programs’. Students undertake intensive courses in academic communication, critical thinking and research standards to prepare for full time study.  Moreso, students are welcomed into a community where they find safety.

The Language Centre (TLC) at Saint Mary’s University (SMU) has been supporting the cultural and academic transition of learners and newcomers for 25 years. Thousands of students have passed through these doors and many have gone on to earn degrees from SMU and become permanent members of our community.

Closure of The Language Centre

Once a thriving, profitable school in the heart of Halifax, TLC was left unrecognisable as a result of poor management and neglect. On January 23, 2024, CUPE 3912 was informed that all operations at TLC would cease by the end of April 2024. SMU has chosen to abandon all English language programs, the IELTS Testing Centre and the teacher training course that share the building.

Impact on Instructors

In spite of the importance of their work, language instructors are amongst the most precariously employed workers in the increasingly unstable labor force. Very few English language teachers in post secondary education are unionized and most have no more than 8 – 12 weeks of job security. Most have no health benefits or access to university pension programs. They are typically excluded from perks such as access to parking or to wellness facilities and tuition discounts. Despite the fact that these are highly educated and specialized workers, they are second-class citizens in our sector.

Local 3912 is disappointed with the callous way that TLC instructors have been treated. The university administration did not consult with instructors and no business plan or vision for the future was ever communicated. The University stood by as the previous director of TLC hired three full-time instructors from outside the union to teach English language courses. This ignored precedence and robbed CUPE 3912 members of their right to bargained work. That director was fired, and the position left vacant. For the past several years the employees have stood witness as more administrative staff were hired, even though the University stopped recruiting and student numbers dwindled.

The first time instructors, many of whom have been at TLC for decades, heard from the senior administrator overseeing the unit was in an after-hours email from a complete stranger who laid off the entire workforce over their lunch break, before they had to face awaiting students. They were deeply saddened by the loss of their jobs and the impact that this will have on international students and the community.

Impact on Students

The other casualty of the university’s callous actions are the international students who came to Saint Mary’s in good faith. These learners gave their significant international student tuition fees to The Language Centre with hopes of starting full time study at SMU, which has now abandoned them in their journey to full-time post secondary study. This is not just about money as these students have strict visa rules that require them to attend the programs they have been approved for. Thus, SMU has cast students out with no clear plan as to how they will begin full time study in the fall, bringing doubt and uncertainty to their visa status, educational plan, and future.

We are left asking what will future language learners at SMU do and how will their academic needs be addressed? The internationalization of higher education means more than just accepting large tuition fees from non-citizen students. It requires meaningful academic support so that learners are successful. Saint Mary’s has systematically disassembled the academic community that created a fair and equitable academic environment for international students who speak English as an additional language. International students are poorly served by an institution that depends so significantly on them because students are marginalized by their language and immigration status.

CUPE 3912’s Response 

We were in the midst of bargaining our next Collective Agreement when the Employer indicated that they would not return to the bargaining table, as TLC would close. Our CUPE National representative advised us to request a return to the bargaining table from the Employer, citing the statutory freeze in place due to the status of active bargaining and the possibility of filing an unfair labour practise complaint. Fortunately, the employer agreed to return to the bargaining table to discuss the terms of the closure of TLC.

After a difficult day of negotiations, we reached an agreement for TLC instructors. This included non-monetary items, such as access to the Extended Family Assistance Plan, SMU email accounts,  Brightspace course shells, the Patrick Power library, employee records, and the health clinic for those who receive primary care at SMU. The Employer agreed to 3% retro pay and a lump sum payment to the local, so that members at TLC can determine the most equitable way to allocate funds. The Employer repeatedly referred to the dire financial situation at SMU – and we reminded them no one feels that more than instructors at TLC.

In Parting

I extend my heartfelt best wishes to all my colleagues at TLC. I thank the CUPE 3912 Executive Board for moral support, the knowledge and experience that helped to navigate this situation for the instructors at TLC. Being a CUPE VP has opened my eyes to the world of the labour movement and the incredible challenges facing the post-secondary sector. I intend on staying involved, continuing my education and activism and stepping up when and where I can make a difference. I look forward to attending the first All Committee Meeting (ACM) of the Post-Secondary Action Committee in Ottawa this month, where I will speak to the issues – the creation of a second class within the higher education sector, shoddy contracts for newcomers, and international students’ contentions with citizenship issues – while building solidarity with workers facing similar challenges across our sector.

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