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Margin Notes

Sessional instructors, the freelancers of higher ed

Our dependence on them is not matched by the amount we pay.


Like many (if not most) magazines, University Affairs relies heavily on freelance writers. We simply cannot afford enough full-time staff to fill our pages (and our website) and so we depend on the very good work of our regular freelance contributors.

We pay our freelancers fairly well by industry standards. The problem is that the industry standards are appallingly low. We pay from about 50 cents to one dollar per word, so a 1,500-word feature might fetch a freelance writer … well, you can do the math. Full-time freelance writers are lucky if they make $40,000 a year and many make considerably less than that. There can be periods when work is scarce and there are no employee benefits. What’s more, the pay rates have remained stagnant for at least two decades.

We’d of course prefer to pay our freelancers more, but our budget is limited. If we did pay more, we’d likely have to cut in other areas, like photography or design or paper quality.

Does all this sound familiar? As you’ve likely guessed from the headline, I see a parallel here with the use of sessional instructors at universities. Universities rely heavily on these low-paid, part-time workers, but gosh darn it, they just can’t afford to pay them more – or, heavens, offer them full-time tenure-track positions.

I do sympathize with Canada’s universities. It’s not like they haven’t been hiring. According to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, about half of all university faculty in Canada have been hired in the last decade. In addition to replacing retiring faculty, universities have hired about 8,000 additional professors during that time.

But university enrolment continues to grow – the number of full-time university students has more than doubled since 1980 – outpacing the growth in faculty. The result: higher teacher-faculty ratios and an increasing reliance on the academic underclass of low-paid contract teachers.

I often wonder how contract teachers are viewed by tenured faculty. Do professors feel a bit uncomfortable seeing these highly trained individuals being treated as second-tier professionals? Is there a sense of solidarity, or is it easier to just not think about it?

It’s a muddle that I’m well acquainted with. Perhaps we could pay our freelance writers more and generally improve their working conditions. In recent years, some of our writers have joined syndicates which demand higher and more uniform pay rates, and we have complied.

Of course, the parallel between contract teachers and freelance writers is not exact. For one, many freelance writers choose this line of work because of the freedom it gives them, even though it is low-paid. I don’t doubt that contract teachers (or contingent faculty, or adjuncts, or whatever you choose to call them) also like their work, but I’m sure most would gladly give up the itinerant lifestyle for a full-time position with all the added benefits.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. JoVE / November 16, 2011 at 11:28

    Thank you for raising this important issue. I think there are those who do sessional teaching because that’s what they want. I recall meeting a sociologist whose full-time job is with StatCan who teaches a quantitative methods course in a local university, for example. Those people exist. We want them to continue to exist. And they add real value to the educational experience.

    The balance in numbers of full-time vs sessional employees has shifted considerably though. And this is worrying. Similar things have happened in journalism, too, and people are similarly worried about it.

    I think the question is thus about that balance. And about how we deliver a high quality product (whether journalism or education). We shouldn’t assume only full-time employees can do high quality work. Sometimes a freelancer with special expertise is the right thing.

    But we might also consider whether the choice needs to be between a particular type of full-time position with very particular balance of responsibilities and what is basically casual employment. Discussions are starting to happen about different kinds of full-time positions, and different routes to tenure (more focused on teaching). I would like to see that expand out to see opportunities for secure part-time employment. And for pay rates that reflect the experience that some sessional employees bring to the institution.

  2. Postdoc / November 16, 2011 at 14:32

    It’s the same problem that post-docs have. The pay rates are the least of the problems; it’s the lack of benefits and stability that really hurts the sessional (or postdoc). I’m sure many people would be very happy as sessionals, with their current pay rates, if only they could qualify for full benefits, and have guaranteed employment in the long term.

    According to, Canada produces about 209 PhDs per 100,000 individuals aged 25-29. That’s about 5.5k PhDs a year, or 50 thousand in 10 years.

    At 8,000 hirings in 10 years, we’re looking at a 15% success rate under the current “PI-or-nothing” scenario in academia. Universities must recognize that 1) Not all great researchers are great teachers, 2) Not all great teachers want to do research, and 3) If more people were hired to teach only, the reduced workload on the researchers would result in increased scientific productivity.

    Yes researchers should teach…advanced and graduate courses, where their research experience is directly relevant. Let the 100-300 level courses be taught by people that are good at it, and will put much more effort in make sure the students are receiving quality education.

    Academia needs alternative career options, that offer benefits and stability, besides the PI holy grail.

    Another interesting perspective here:

  3. Lee / November 18, 2011 at 16:50

    I think one of the biggest differences between a freelance writer and an adjunct is that the freelance writer is building a portfolio of writing to bring to other (potential) employers who may higher them on a full-time basis; their writing is their calling card.

    On the other hand, adjuncts are building their teaching portfolio while academia is more interested in their research portfolio. We know that adjuncts often have little time and institutional support to do their research. How, then, can an adjunct hope to move into the ranks of the full-time tenure-track employee?

    No one in journalism will ever accuse a freelancer of writing too much. But we hear it all the time, be careful not to teach too much if you want to be an academic.

  4. Craig Monk / November 22, 2011 at 01:10

    One of the complicating issues, as is likely also the case with your writers, is that contract players are not a homogenous group. Some of the people with whom I taught sessionally at the beginning of my career are still doing so: and some of them would never consider moving for work. I could not have done that work for this long. On the other hand, I am responsible for staffing a corner of our satellite operations in Calgary and Edmonton, and I am pleased to have been able to offer work to graduate students, new post-docs, and colleagues who make a living by working at a number of institutions clustered in these urban centers. Do I worry about maintaining these short-term arrangements in perpetuity? Absolutely. But I have also tried to offer some useful intangibles: issuing contracts months in advance, almost never cancelling classes for soft enrolments, granting latitude in course design, and trying to offer repeat sections to cut down on new preparations. Truthfully, I do not have enough sections, consistently, to equal full-time work and, if I did, I might have to cut ties with two or three other people in order to give a contract to one. Difficult business.

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