Skip navigation
Margin Notes

Sifting through the scant data on contingent faculty

To fully address the plight of sessional instructors, we need better data.


According to the Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association, contract academic staff on temporary, per-course contracts taught 52 percent of all students registered in classes, tutorials, labs and seminars at the university in 2012. That 52-percent figure is interesting by its mere existence, since data on contract faculty (also known as contingent faculty or sessional instructors, among other terms) is difficult to come by in this country.

We also discover, via a quote from university spokesman Kevin Crowley in a story in the Waterloo Region Record, that there are 376 part-time faculty teaching at Laurier this fall. The number of contract academic staff cannot exceed 35 percent of full-time faculty, which number 600, Mr. Crowley said, adding that this rule was negotiated by the union and the university during the last full-time faculty contract. We also learn that a part-time instructor is paid about $7,200 per course (for one term, typically three months).

Again, these are very interesting facts that I point out not because of what they may or may not say about the university, but simply due to their rarity. Are these figures representative of the situation at other Canadian universities? We don’t really know, since there are no national data of any kind.

(The Laurier info, by the way, comes to light because the faculty association is in conciliation with the university to arrive at a new collective agreement for contract academic staff. As part of that, the faculty association is posting information on the working conditions of these instructors, and conciliation updates, on Tumblr.)

It would require some effort to compile national figures on the use of contingent faculty. There would be a lot of definitional issues that would need to be sorted out, because the rules and practices differ from institution to institution. But I’m sure it could be done.

There is some information out there on contract faculty, if you look hard enough. For instance, a blog by the University of British Columbia faculty association, written during contract negotiations in 2012 and 2013, had an entire post on contract academic staff. Of the 3,330 instructional staff, we learn that 815, or roughly one quarter, are on limited-term contracts. Most union members on contracts are either sessional lecturers (about 600 members) who hold appointments of less than one year, or 12-month lecturers (about 160 members) who hold appointments of at least one year.

But these numbers are somewhat deceiving, according to the blog. While representing one-quarter of all academic staff, these contract instructors “do a very significant amount of undergraduate teaching, accounting for as much as 70 percent (or more) of all undergraduate instruction in some departments.”

One of our own stories in University Affairs also had some information, though scant:

No one we talked to for this article knew of any consistent tracking of sessional use across the country. Some faculty associations are keeping track of the proportion of sessionals to regular faculty: at the University of Calgary, for example, the 529 sessional instructors represent 23 percent of the faculty workforce. But the union doesn’t know what proportion of courses are taught by sessional instructors. In Ontario, the recent Auditor General’s Report (which reviewed how three universities support and assess the quality of undergraduate teaching) noted that at one institution, sessional staff “accounted for 24 percent of full-time equivalent staff and were responsible for teaching approximately 40 percent of its courses.”

That article, “Sessionals, up close,” in our February 2013 print edition, was our attempt to fill the information void by putting together a sort of cross-country roundup on sessional working conditions by sampling the pay, benefits, job security and other key work-related conditions for sessionals at a range of small, medium and large Canadian postsecondary institutions.

In the U.S., there are much greater efforts to highlight the working conditions of adjunct and contingent faculty, most notably the New Faculty Majority, which lobbies on behalf of these instructors. It also has a foundation that “aims to be a clearinghouse for existing information about contingent faculty; to identify gaps in existing research on the role of contingent faculty in higher education; and to conduct original research on needed topics.” The Chronicle of Higher Education also has begun what it calls the Adjunct Project to gather pay and working conditions data about the nation’s adjuncts. Faculty and lecturers are requested to submit their data “to see how it compares to your colleagues around the country.”

One thing nearly everyone involved in the situation agrees on is that the status of contract academic faculty is, for the most part, abysmal. At Laurier, sessional instructors are allowed to teach up to three courses per semester, for a total theoretically of nine per year. However, according to the faculty association, on average, contract academic staff teach just 2.4 courses per year, for which they earn under $18,000.

What’s the solution? I don’t know. But, if we’re to address the situation in a serious way in terms of new policies, we need better data on which to base decisions. And, it would be far better for institutions to take the lead on this then to leave it to the provincial governments to sort it out. To quote a tweet from our blogger Melonie Fullick on a similar topic about addressing change in higher education: “Yes we can have ‘solutions’ but not when you’re sticking your fingers in your ears and singing ‘lalala’.”

Editor’s note: this post has been changed somewhat from the original to clarify a few points. See also the first comment below.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Dr. Herbert Pimlott / October 29, 2013 at 15:57

    I’m glad to see that you are raising the issue about the scant data on contingent or contract faculty. I believe it was in or around 1991-92 when Statistics Canada decided to stop collecting data on contract faculty.

    Although initially called or referred to as ‘part-time’ faculty, to distinguish them from ‘full-time’ faculty, their contribution to the provision of courses at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, has increased substantially and has become increasingly part of the permanent structure of Canadian universities, just as it has in the US.

    The ‘part-time’ adjective refers more to their pay and lack of benefits than it does to the time and effort required to do a proper job of providing the university education that Senior Administrators are always so quick to claim when encouraging students to enrol and pay ever higher tuition fees.

    The term Contract Academic Staff (CAS) is the term used to identify faculty in the Collective Agreement at Laurier (and the term recognized by the CAUT and used by others) but for many contract profs the term itself is felt to be one which diminishes their status, that is as ‘staff’ as opposed to (full-time) ‘faculty’, even though there are many CAS who teach more courses as well as students than ‘full-time faculty’.

    However, I did want to clarify some of the misinformation or mistakes that were published in The Record article – and for which I do not blame the journalist as the details of the working conditions for contract faculty are confusing to say the least (perhaps, that’s why StatsCan stopped collecting data?).

    The Administration’s spokesperson is reported as saying the number of CAS “can not exceed 35 per cent of full-time faculty which numbers 600”. This is incorrect.

    The Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association (WLUFA) has two bargaining units, one is CAS and the other is the full-time faculty (FTF). The full-time faculty collective agreement stipulates a 35% restriction on the amount of courses taught by CAS.

    This clause, however, includes a range of exceptions which add up to a substantial increase in courses taught by CAS (for example, courses taught in the summer, except for the School of Business and Economics, are not included).

    Yet, a researcher for WLUFA went through the official student enrollment records for courses, tutorials, labs and seminars (not just courses per se) to add up total student enrollment taught by FT versus CAS faculty. This gave the number of 52% of total student enrollment. This is a substantial increase from 2007 when it was 38%.

    Also, I was reported as saying that “some [CAS] teach up to four courses” which is incorrect. There is a limit of three courses per semester and of up to nine per year for CAS. Some teach the maximum and some teach only one.

    If CAS taught six courses a year, they would earn around the average salary of what 87% of Ontario graduates earn (on average) six months after graduation with just a bachelor’s degree ($42,403), according to WLU President Max Blouw (who made that claim as Chair of COU in a media release on 23 July 2013).

    Of course, that lends itself to an immediate contradiction or ‘paradox’ (if you like) of contract faculty being amongst the lowest paid professionals in Canada whilst working for the very institutions that promote themselves on the future earning power of their graduates – with only one rather than two or three degrees – appears to have escaped the purview of the media and senior administrators.

    To find out more, readers can check out and/or

  2. KF / October 30, 2013 at 10:50

    Dr Pimlott is absolutely correct: the labour of CAS is part-time in name only. Actual workload can match if not sometimes exceed that of full-time faculty (and, if we factor in the “freeway flyers”; i.e., those who teach at multiple institutions, overall workload can be fairly intensive). The last time there was a considerable effort to collect data on CAS in Canada was over a decade ago in Indhu Rajagopal’s book, Hidden Academics. Since then, several upper administrations have been generally reluctant to collect or publish data on the number of CAS they employ.

    The chronic paradox of highly educated professionals working at subsistence wages while the university markets itself as the royal road to higher earning power is painfully apparent. In response, senior admin takes the view that CAS are only working when in the classroom, thus justifying its depressed wage practices. In response to labour precarity, senior admin can generally repose on the neoliberal euphemisms of flexibility, mobility, and choice among this workforce.

    I am, however, heartened that people such as Dr Pimlott have been such strong advocates for CAS, and of course the tireless work of Laurier’s CAS bargaining unit is an exemplary model for other faculty associations in terms of how to maximize outreach and mobilize a constituency in a spirit of true solidarity among all faculty ranks. It is only collectively that we can put a stop to exploitative practices that rely on short-termism, ad hoc staffing over-reliance, and the marginalization of scholars who possess the same educational qualifications as their full-time faculty peers. Let us hope a massive sea change is coming!

  3. Peter Eglin / November 3, 2013 at 16:22

    While agreeing with colleagues’ previous comments I have to say that “hope” doesn’t cut it. The situation of CAS is an abomination. It is intolerable and should not be tolerated a minute longer. It is a massive breach of the principle enshrined in the standard human rights instruments of equal pay for equal work. It is, in countless details of actual practice, an assault on the dignity of dedicated professional workers. That faculty unions should regard its remedy as a matter of bargaining for a few dollars more or some meagre benefits or a tidbit or two or job security is itself an affront to the right of “just and favourable remuneration ensuring” for workers and their families “an existence worthy of human dignity.” If my fellow full-time faculty have any regard whatsoever for equal rights and human dignity – not to mention academic integrity and a university worthy of the name – they should be demanding that their national body, the CAUT, support them in calling for and organizing a national strike of all university faculty until CAS doing essentially the same job they are doing enjoy the same terms of employment.

  4. Kevin Crowley / November 5, 2013 at 21:07

    On behalf of Wilfrid Laurier University, I would like to address two issues in the original blog post.
    First, it is important to note that the number of courses taught by Contract Academic Staff (CAS) at Laurier is governed by the collective agreement agreed to by full-time faculty. According to the full-time contract, which the Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association (WLUFA) negotiated and approved, the total number of courses taught by CAS members cannot exceed 35% of the courses offered in an academic year.
    Second, using the language and course definitions agreed to by WLUFA in the full-time contract, the university calculates that about 45 per cent of Laurier students – not 52 per cent – are enrolled in a course taught by a CAS member.
    In the current round of collective bargaining with the CAS, the university remains committed to reaching an agreement that is in the best interests of students and the institution.

  5. Dr. Herbert Pimlott / November 6, 2013 at 18:01

    Kevin Crowley’s response begs clarification. Let me explain.

    He points to the Full-Time Faculty (FTF) Collective Agreement (CA) agreed to by both the Administration and WLUFA, and says “the total number of courses taught by CAS members cannot exceed 35% of the courses offered in an academic year”.

    (1) What he neglects to mention is the list of “exceptions”.

    Just two examples should suffice: (a) all online courses are excluded from the official “35%”; AND (b) all the courses taught at Laurier between May and August, except for those taught in the School of Business and Economics, are excluded.

    But, this lack of clarity begs a second question:

    (2) Does Mr. Crowley’s “45%” of students include all the “exceptions” in the Administration’s calculations OR is it only based on the official “35%”?

    This becomes an important distinction because he wants to claim the lesser figure in contrast to the 52% that WLUFA’s research has identified (which is up from 38% in 2007, by the way). If these exceptions were NOT included, that “45%” would likely become much greater, wouldn’t it?

    I suppose the Administration needs to put the best “spin” and therefore want to claim the lesser figure, especially since it cost only 3.3% of total revenue last year to pay CAS faculty to teach 45% of students than if it is for 52%.

    If we accept the Administration’s claim, then it would mean that the numbers indicate that CAS professors teaching “35%” of courses have larger classes overall (i.e. if it is “45%” of students in their courses).

    (3) Third, I would point out that Mr. Crowley uses the word “courses”, which is not the same thing as “classes, labs, tutorials and seminars”. When we account for all the places (or “student spots”) where Laurier students are engaged by faculty to do their best, that is where we find at least half, if not (a slight) majority of students – the 52% – who are taught by CAS as opposed to FT Faculty.

    (4) Finally, Mr. Crowley claims the Administration is committed to getting what is in the “best interests of the students and the institution”.

    How is it in the “best interests” of students to spend 19.3% more in tuition fees over the last four years for a 44% increase in management and only a 7% increase in FT faculty AND while student enrollment increased by 23% over the same period? (By the way, these are taken directly from the Human Resources reports for Laurier.)

    Is 3.3% of revenues really appropriate for paying those who are teaching 45% – let alone 52% – of the students?

    Even with the added salary burden of 44% more senior administrators and managers, the total costs of salaries at Laurier has actually decreased, as a percentage of total expenditures, from 51% in 2008 to 47% in 2012. (These figures contradict the public’s perception that faculty salaries take up most of the costs of university finances – at least at Laurier, but this could well be true of other Ontario and perhaps Canadian universities.)

    What students (and their parents and the public, too) might want an answer to is: If the Administration is committed to the “best interests” of students, why have their tuition fees increased by 19.3% over the last four years, if so little is spent to teach about half of them?