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No one benefits from a two-tiered university professoriate

For many Canadians, a professor is a professor. The truth is that the professional and economic conditions of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty and contracted instructors are drastically different.

October 18, 2022

4-minute read

Contracted academics, variously referred to as sessional instructors, adjuncts, and “part-time” academics, are estimated to perform the majority of undergraduate teaching in Canada (and up to 70% in the U.S.). These contract workers, much like their counterparts in other precarious sectors, are severely undercompensated, with few or no benefits, limited advancement opportunities, and very little job security. They are the “just-in-time” workforce of universities—hired to deliver core undergraduate offerings, often just months, sometimes weeks, and occasionally days, before classes begin.

A recent posting for an uncompensated part-time lecturer at UCLA has brought international attention to the absurdity of the academic job market. More importantly, it points to the entrenchment of a two-tiered class system wherein part-time instructors in Canada also regularly do unpaid research, service, and, yes, even teaching long after the early apprenticeship stage of their career.

To put this in perspective, entry-level tenure-track faculty at the three universities in my community (Halifax) start their careers at around $75,000, with benefits, pensions, annual pay increases, opportunities for promotion, and significant salary jumps.

Universities pay entry-level contract instructors on a course-by-course basis, usually starting at $5,000 a course and maxing out at $7,000 a course, with little job security, benefits, paid leave, pension, or meaningful opportunities for promotion or advancement.

An entry-level contract faculty member would need to teach approximately nine courses a year—double what an entry-level full-time professor teaches—to make a living wage in the Halifax region.

Beyond modest pay increases, the only benefit seasoned contract faculty receive for years of service in Halifax is seniority in the application process. These instructors, many of whom have been teaching for over 15 years, still must apply to teach their courses every year and have little, if any, input or recourse on practical matters that directly affect their livelihood, including when and if a course will be offered or cancelled.

The common justification for this inequity is that contracted instructors only teach one to two courses a year to supplement full-time careers and are not burdened by the research and service commitments expected of their full-time colleagues. This is the case in many professional disciplines, such as business, nursing, dentistry, and social work.

For the majority of part-time academics, however, and especially those who teach within Faculties of Arts, Sciences, and Humanities, part-time teaching is a full-time job. To make ends meet, contract academics frequently teach more per term than any full-time faculty association would accept for their members, often spread across multiple institutions, while juggling the unpaid research and service that are implicitly required of university-level instruction.

Cuts to tenure-track positions are partly to blame. In a climate where provincial funding is scarce and often tied to narrow performance-based metrics, it is not unusual for universities to cut Humanities, Arts, and Sciences programs and replace retiring full-time faculty members with cheap precarious labour.

Precarious faculty could protest with their feet and leave academe. Plenty do. Those who stay often describe academic research and teaching as a passion or calling that they are unwilling or able to give up.

It’s also a supply issue. Between 2002 and 2017, the number of students admitted to PhD programs in Canada more than doubled, yet the number of academic jobs has remained constant since 2009. As a result, only one-third of those who complete their PhDs typically find full-time academic positions. As is often the case, these numbers are worse for women, who earn approximately 19 per cent less than men five years post PhD and are more likely to be under-employed or in contracted academic positions.

Precarious faculty could protest with their feet and leave academe. Plenty do. Those who stay often describe academic research and teaching as a passion or calling that they are unwilling or able to give up.

There is also the practical matter of sunk costs. By the time they graduate, the typical Canadian PhD has invested seven to 10 years in graduate school, in addition to increasingly common postdoctoral fellowships. Many cling to the hope that precarious teaching will eventually lead to a full-time position—and many have simply invested too much of their lives into training and working as academics to give up on the profession.

But the demands and insecurity of precarious labour are incompatible with the regular scholarly output required for tenure-track jobs. When full-time positions do turn up, they rarely go to local contract faculty because the teaching demands required to make ends meet as a contract faculty typically preclude a fulsome research program.

No one benefits from a two-tiered professoriate—certainly not students, who are consistently asked to pay more for less service. University instruction is inevitably compromised when a large percentage of faculty lack institutional support for research, student mentorship, and professional development.

Students suffer when their instructors are over-stretched and precarious; these conditions lead to inconsistent curriculum, reduced contact hours, and fewer letters of reference and thesis supervision options.

Universities’ reliance on faculty not paid for service also means that full time-instructors sit on more committees and take on more supervision. Universities lose, too: precarious faculty are more likely to contribute to grade-inflation and less likely to report plagiarism due to an over-reliance on favourable student evaluations for future employment.

Canadian universities claim to be devoted to the public good, but that claim is becoming increasingly hollow. A post-secondary system that relies on a precarious underclass cannot reliably meet its core mandate to provide quality higher education.

The moment is ripe for change. Dalhousie now faces an imminent part-time faculty and teaching-assistant strike (these groups form a CUPE bargaining unit). At issue are compensation rates, which remain among the lowest in the country for both teaching assistants and contract faculty—when the cost of living in Halifax continues to skyrocket.

University administrators are custodians of a public good, yet they appear to consistently under-prioritize and marginalize those responsible for delivering the institution’s primary product. 

These conditions reflect poorly on the state of post-secondary education in this province and the country writ large. It is time to have a frank national conversation about the integrity and future of our post-secondary system. The future of higher education in this country depends on it.

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