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Part-time instructors symptom of increasing student enrolment

An estimated half of all undergraduates are taught by contract faculty
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A corridor in Sidney Smith Hall. file photo: VICTORIA DAWSON/THE VARSITY
A corridor in Sidney Smith Hall. file photo: VICTORIA DAWSON/THE VARSITY

Undergraduate enrolment in Ontario has skyrocketed over the last decade, with the number of full-time equivalent students in Ontario increasing by 52 per cent, according to a study by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO). At the same time, the study found, the number of full-time permanent faculty members increased by just 30 per cent. 

The gap is increasingly filled by a mixture of sessional lecturers and graduate student instructors, who work on contract and are often required to reapply for their positions every four to eight months. Additionally, contract faculty are often offered no explicit health benefits or access to pension plans.

According to a CBC estimate, over half of all undergraduates in Canada today are taught by contract faculty.


“Working on a contract ”

At the University of Toronto, contract faculty are represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3902. According to Dr. Erin Black, a sessional lecturer and acting chair at CUPE Local 3902, contract faculty face a myriad of problems. “[D]espite many of them holding PhDs, they live a very precarious existence with… limited income. [M]any exist below the poverty line,” Black said. 

According to the HEQCO study, in the 2012-2013 academic year, salaries of sessional instructors at U of T ranged between $14,510 and $16,160 per full course. 

Tenured appointments are governed by the university’s Policy and Procedures on Academic Appointments. According to that document, tenure “is the holding by a member of the professorial staff of the University of a continuing full-time appointment which the University has relinquished the freedom to terminate before the normal age of retirement except for cause.” 

“Tenured appointments should be granted on the basis of three essential criteria: achievement in research and creative professional work, effectiveness in teaching, and clear promise of future intellectual and professional development,” the document adds.

Tenured professors annually make over $100,000.

Appointments on a sessional and part-time basis are governed by the university’s Policy and Procedures on Part-Time Appointments. 

Yolen Bollo-Kamara, president of the University of Toronto Students Union, said that the use of contract faculty is detrimental to both students and instructors. The result both for them and for their students is that “professional instructors often have to take on teaching jobs at multiple institutions, making it more difficult for them to hold office hours and maintain regular communication with students,” she said. 

“Part of the mechanism”

According to Althea Blackburn-Evans, U of T director of media relations, contract faculty play a key academic role in postsecondary institutions. “[They] bring substantial expertise to enrich… students’ educational experiences and build their practical skills,” Blackburn-Evans said.

Contract faculty also fulfill specific teaching posts when tenured faculty members are on personal or research leave. Given that sessional faculty don’t have the same research and service duties as tenured faculty, they are able to focus on teaching requirements. 

In reality, however, many contract faculty put in extra hours on researching, publishing, and serving on academic committees in an attempt to improve their chance at getting a tenure-stream position. 

Ryan Culpepper, vice chair, unit 1 and 2 with CUPE 3902, and PhD student at the Centre for Comparative Literature, said that the practice of relying on contract faculty is a strategic business move that cuts costs for universities and offers an alternative to committing to tenured positions. 

“Sessional lecturers and course instructors do some of the best teaching at [U of T]. Unfortunately, the University of Toronto administration does not pay these employees a wage that reflects their considerable experience,” Culpepper said.

“Risks and progress”

Richard Wellen, president of the York University Faculty Association and former representative for York’s contract faculty at CUPE Local 3903, echoed Culpepper’s sentiment. Wellen expressed concern that, for contract faculty, the lack of job security may erode their academic freedom and offer them little opportunity to pursue their research careers 

Although the use of contract faculty is widespread, in recent years some institutions have moved to create full-time, teaching-only positions to avoid over-utilization of contract faculty. 

Others, like U of T, have seen only marginal increases in the number of contracted sessional lecturers relative to tenure-stream faculty — an increase of about five per cent from 2004 to 2012. 

Wellen added that, at the end of the day, the prevalence of contract faculty can be attributed to postsecondary education underfunding. Ontario has the lowest level of per-student funding in Canada.

“Clearly this is a phenomenon related to the underfunding of universities… the fact that [contract faculty] receive so little recognition for the role they play in post-secondary institutions is something that should concern the entire community inside and outside of academia,” said Wellen.