The institution of the public university is one that prides itself on intellectual inquiry, debate, and openness for the common good. But this is currently marred by the dirty little secret of academia: the rise of job insecurity for instructors.
Although universities may prefer otherwise, it is imperative that students be alarmed about the working conditions of those who educate them. If U of T is dedicated to global innovation and development, it should first evaluate the reforms that must happen on its own campuses.
The rise of contract appointments
Earlier this month, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) released a report entitled “Contract U,” drawing from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to all 78 of Canada’s public universities.
Based on data collected from the 67 schools that successfully responded with usable data, the report revealed that the majority of faculty appointments at universities are contract positions, as opposed to tenured or tenure-track. This isn’t new: it’s been the case for over a decade. Among the contract faculty, almost 80 per cent are part-time appointees.
While all contract faculty are faced with long-term employment uncertainty, the position of part-time instructors with short-term contracts should draw the most concern. They are paid on a per-course basis and might receive as little as a semesterly contract for each. There is no certainty that they will be rehired for the next year, and must re-apply for appointments each time. They also have little to no benefits, are not paid as well as permanent faculty teaching the same material, and are forced to simultaneously teach at other universities or have other gigs to make ends meet.
This reflects a broader, decades-long concern about the shift from full-time, permanent work to short-term contract employment in universities, associated with public funding cuts by the federal and provincial government in the 1990s.
However, the report concludes that austerity isn’t the only variable, since the proportion of contract appointments varies across schools based on categories like discipline and region. For instance, the proportion is higher than the national average in Ontario and in urban areas.
Ultimately, the report suggests that this shift is likely driven not by changes in market demand or personal choice, but by the decisions of university administrations to heavily rely on contract faculty.
The corporate model
These decisions can be situated within the general normalization of precarious work in the Canadian and global labour markets. This is based on a corporate model that seeks to cut labour costs, whether through suppressed wages or increased reliance on part-time work. Struggling employees with poor working conditions, whether at universities or corporations, are also easier to manage and control. By contrast, the salaries of high-level university administrators and senior managers remain high.
Whereas contract employment used to be a means to fill temporary gaps at universities, it is now replacing long-term employment entirely. Ontario has the lowest level of per-student funding in Canada, and as enrolment and demand for classes increase, universities seek contract faculty to do more teaching.
Responding to the rise of precarious employment are the labour strikes that have occurred in recent memory. At U of T, a month-long teaching assistants’ strike occurred in 2015 in response to below-poverty line compensation and being allocated only three per cent of U of T’s budget, despite performing 60 per cent of in-person teaching.
In the summer of 2016, a hunger strike by Aramark food service workers following U of T’s takeover of food services raised more questions about job security. In the following years, 2017’s Ontario college strike and 2018’s York University strike — the longest postsecondary strike in Canadian history — revolved around job security for contract instructors.
For sessional lecturers at U of T, represented by CUPE 3902 Unit 3, it is not so much compensation, but a pathway to permanent employment and job security that is a concern. During last year’s negotiations, Unit 3’s “conversion” proposal — to gradually convert instructors from sessional to full-time teaching positions — was viewed by U of T as “unacceptable.”
For U of T, frequently bragging about being the top-ranked university in Canada and providing a high-quality education should come with a corresponding responsibility to deliver high-quality and supportive working conditions. U of T’s attitude toward its workers — especially as a multibillion dollar institution and the wealthiest university in Canada — is what is unacceptable.
Many students who are acquainted with contract instructors anecdotally know the difficulties that come with their precarious work: for instance, having to commute between two gigs at different universities to make ends meet. But beyond the professional hurdle, it is a deeply personal issue.
The process of having to frequently look, apply, and wait for jobs is stressful and harmful to mental health. It inhibits instructors from fully engaging with and meeting the needs and demands of their students — which often occurs outside of course hours, unpaid. The short-term nature of their work also makes it difficult to make long-term plans for themselves, such as starting a family or gaining access to financial institutions.
When labour strikes hit universities, the corporate model that is pervasive in universities tends to pit students against university instructors: after all, students paying tuition are losing out on a service they paid for. But, ideally, we are critical learners before we are self-interested consumers.
It is our obligation to inquire and understand how instructors endure questionable working conditions — especially when students are also affected by an economy of precarious employment and postsecondary debt. Students who plan to go into academia should also advocate for conditions that they would want for themselves in the future.
We should reflect on the fact that universities tell us that postsecondary education leads to good employment, and yet those who deliver that education are themselves far from that end goal. Today, it is possible for instructors with PhDs to live in poverty.
Even if we are to consider ourselves consumers, we should understand that poor working conditions for instructors inevitably degrade the quality of education on which we are spending our tuition. Ultimately, we should express solidarity with instructors against the university administration.
The need for transparency
The CCPA report has also sparked conversation about the lack of data surrounding precarious employment in universities. The authors reflected on how difficult it was to collect data through FOIs, especially since they rely on schools to release accurate data.
Schools may not reveal a complete set of information detailing factors such as demographics or credentials. The extent to which contract appointments are gendered is an important question. Data is crucial to mapping and identifying problems and determining solutions. As recommended by the report, this must be a government priority set through Statistics Canada to ensure the transparency of all public universities on such critical issues.
Indeed, some universities refused to respond to FOI requests, while others — like U of T — sent information that was not properly categorized and thus unusable. When The Varsity asked for comment, Vice-Provost Faculty & Academic Life Heather Boon said, “The categories used for this study didn’t reflect the nature of our faculty appointments.”
She went on to explain that “the University of Toronto has a carefully planned mix of faculty and instructors,” with sessional lecturers teaching 12 per cent of courses, and that “our students expect and deserve a world-class education, grounded in our research and teaching strengths, and that is what they’re getting with the mix we’ve created.”
Boon is correct: students do deserve a world-class education. But the instructors who provide that education also deserve world-class employment.
As a public institution, U of T has an obligation to show that it serves public interests. The university should be more transparent with data — like 67 other universities were — and address the needs of its workers. Likewise, the government must also do better to fund universities sufficiently and protect labour in terms of wages, fairness, and job security.
We need to remember that the university works because they — the instructors — do.
The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note (November 26, 7:00 pm): This editorial originally referenced reporting in another Varsity article which was later discovered to have inaccurately stated that the University of Toronto does not release demographic data on faculty and staff. In fact, the university releases an annual Employment Equity Report each year that includes this information. The Varsity regrets the error.