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Margin Notes

Sessional instructors: what we know so far

New report sifts the limited data in Ontario to get a fuzzy snapshot of where we’re at.


Although the data on sessional faculty in Canada is frustratingly scant, the authors of a new report have made a valuable if tentative contribution to the debate by scouring what little information is available. Their preliminary analysis suggests that “many of the popular assumptions concerning the increasing use of part-time faculty may be incorrect.” But, as with virtually all studies, they conclude with that near-universal refrain: “additional research is needed.”

The report, The “Other” University Teachers: Non-Full-Time Instructors at Ontario Universities, was commissioned by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario and released on July 15. It is an Ontario-only report, but will have resonance across Canada.

The use of non-full-time university instructors is on the rise in many countries, raising concerns about their working conditions and the implications for educational quality. Nowhere is this more so than in the United States, where the use of contingent faculty is widespread and groups such as the New Faculty Majority fight to improve the working conditions for these instructors. The name of this latter organization is instructive, as it is widely reported that contingent or sessional instructors now make up considerably more than half of all university faculty in the U.S. and perhaps as much as 75 percent (the recent book, Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System, for example, claims the higher number).

What is the situation in Canada? No one really knows, because most universities don’t release the data. This often forces the media in Canada to rely on anecdotal reports or, worse, rely on the U.S. data.

Into this breach have stepped the four authors of the new HEQCO report. With a bit of sleuthing of institutional websites and other data – and with some additional information from the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations – they were able to make at least a few observations.

The authors found that the ratio of sessional instructors to full-time faculty appears to be increasing at some universities while decreasing or remaining stable at others. They also note that the conditions of employment for non-full-time instructors vary by institution. Fees ranged from $5,584 to $7,665 per half course, which is much higher than the average rates for adjunct faculty in the U.S.

Looking at other data, they note that at 10 universities, sessional instructors are represented by the same association as full-time, tenure-stream faculty, while at another 10 there are separate unions or associations. And while sessional instructors have various benefits guaranteed under collective agreements, often including some form of job security related to seniority or promotion, the authors note that sessional instructors “do not have anything close to the level of security associated with tenure.”

University Affairs, I should note, collected its own sampling of pay, benefits and work-related conditions of sessionals in our award-winning story, “Sessionals, up close,” published in the February 2013 edition. We also have a handy chart of these conditions for sessionals (in PDF) on our website. Some of the data may be out of date, but it is still the best snapshot of the situation I’ve seen for Canada.

As for the balance between full-time, tenure-stream faculty and sessional instructors, the authors of the HEQCO report had even less to work with. At one university, the estimated share of courses taught by sessional instructors during the fall and winter terms was roughly 25 percent. Meanwhile, the collective agreements at four universities limit the ratio of courses taught by sessional instructors to between 15 percent and 35 percent. Thus the situation in Canada doesn’t seem to be quite as dire as in the U.S.

In conclusion, the authors call for:

  • A province-wide survey of sessional instructors to learn more about their background (academic and professional), employment situation and teaching load, as well as their perceptions and experiences.
  • A more detailed study of institutional staffing patterns through the collection and analysis of data on employment trends at all Ontario universities; and
  • A detailed analysis of staffing patterns within selected academic units at different Ontario universities and the implications of these patterns for educational quality and student success.

Let’s hope they get it.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. KXF / July 17, 2014 at 10:07

    I certainly applaud HECQO’s spotlight on this issue, but there are a few contextual details that might add a bit more colour to the realities facing many of our precarious academic workers. One quibble is in drawing any comparison to adjunct compensation or faculty complement with the US as it may rely on equivalencies that do not stand up to the different economic indicators of purchasing power, etc., and the structural differences between the US and Cdn university systems. Moreover, any haste in the “takeaway” of Canadian sessionals being better compensated than their US colleagues risks the equally hasty conclusion of being complicit with many of the egregious issues facing many of our sessionals since “it could be worse” instead of shifting the discourse to the more productive “it could be much better.”

    • N / July 17, 2014 at 11:40

      I agree, and I would add that many (not all) of the most egregious cases in the US have been at community colleges. Looking at universities in Canada and the US as a whole is not a valid comparison; at least look at universities _and_ colleges.

      It’s also worth taking a look over the job listings at any Canadian university. All faculty positions do end up being listed, after all, and this is a much more useful way of measuring a trend in tenure-track _hiring_. Since tenured faculty are more permanent, it is fairly easy to maintain the desired ratio by hiring non-tenure-track personnel.

  2. Sandra Hoenle / July 17, 2014 at 12:53

    I agree that comparisons with the US are problematic – and could lead to the false conclusion that things are ‘better’ in Canada, so we really don’t need to concern ourselves with this issue. The use and treatment of sessional instructors is indeed very problematic and we need detailed, national data. Hopefully this is a start for Ontario that will lead to the collection of national data.

  3. T / July 23, 2014 at 13:15

    I believe we concede too much by using the language of “Part Time”. As a sessional instructor I have worked a 3.0 – 5.5 full course equivalency for over three years. I do not teach “part time” and most sessionals in my field carry similar loads. For comparison teaching stream (no research time component) tenured faculty at my institution are only required to teach between 3.0 – 3.5. There have been sessionals in the department who have worked at these loads for more than 10 years. Universities repeatedly use the argument that sessional labour allows them to adjust to course enrolments and temporary labour needs – but many of my colleagues have been employed by the university over long terms working full time loads. There is no excuse to provide zero commitment to employment.

    The issue of tenure comparisons is also clouding the conversation. There are ways to offer job stability and support without tenure.

    • KXF / August 1, 2014 at 10:35

      Good point, T. Joseph Fruscione, an adjunct activist in the US, calls it “full time part-time” work. There are a number of us with technically full loads (if not overloads), and the sum of hours would equal more than a standard full-time designation of 40 hours a week. Complicating this further would be the additional hours spent if one is teaching a full load across more than one university. When there is no access to benefits, this makes matters worse. To add yet another wrinkle, many are the institutions that make no distinction in workload with respect to the difference between revising or authoring a course from scratch. Arguably, both can be labour intensive, but authoring a brand new course would equal more labour.

      “There is no excuse to provide zero commitment to employment.” Well, there is an “excuse” and it has to do with the neoliberal myths of the day that rely on just-in-time professors (ad hoc staffing) and decreasing costs along the entire education supply chain (as more universities treat education as product and students as customers). Well beyond our sector, the move has been to weaken collectivism by segmenting and deskilling labour, creating a precariat class of marginalized and isolate workers as part of an academic reserve army of the underemployed. Heavy investments in fixed capital (digital infrastructure, new buildings) + nosebleed salaries for top administrators to pursue an agenda of internationalizing the campus and corporate style branding takes money away from faculty members. Looking around a typical campus, how much of the revenue goes back into in-class enhancements (such as hiring a stable and secure teaching faculty) as opposed to out-of-class “experiential” costs of providing “fun” for students?

      In the end, relying on contingent ad hoc staffing is self-defeating, for inasmuch as there is a growing labour pool of sessionals due to a bumper crop of new PhDs, it makes curricular planning difficult to do in the long term. It also diminishes educational quality given that, if we teach huge loads just to make a living above the poverty line, then understandably we don’t physically have the time for more mentoring and consultation.

      The university does not need more provosts and upper-tier management; it needs to allocate revenue to those of us who really carry out the true spirit of the academic mission: us. The university should not be diverting ever more operating money into restricted accounts as an investment strategy. It would appear that public universities are adopting all the worst aspects of the private sector.