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Speculative Diction

Past is prologue when it comes to contract faculty

To understand the current issues, we need to look back at the roots of the problem and how they have developed over time.


During the past two weeks, academic unions at the University of Toronto and York University — Canada’s two largest universities, both located in Toronto — have been on strike simultaneously. This is an unusual situation and one that’s brought a good deal of media coverage to the issue of working conditions for non-permanent academic employees (we also saw recently the National Adjunct Walk-Out Day in the United States, with some participation in Canada). At U of T, it’s graduate instructors and TAs striking (Unit 1 in CUPE 3902); at York, where classes were cancelled, it was all three units of CUPE 3903 including contract faculty, TAs, and RAs; at a ratification vote on Monday night a proposed offer was rejected by Units 1 and 3 (some classes resume this week).

The disruption this has caused at Canada’s two largest universities is one sign of the important role that temporary and part-time academic positions play on campuses across the country. There are a couple of major issues I want to point out here, one of which I’m going to discuss below. Firstly, there’s PhD funding and its inadequacy in the face of the rising cost of living; this pertains to the many graduate students on strike. Secondly, there’s the universities’ increased dependence on contract faculty and the lack of job security and resources available for the latter. For this post I’m taking on the second issue, with a closer look at the research on Canadian contract faculty. I’m hoping to answer the question: how did we end up in this dilemma where a significant proportion of teaching is now done by short-term and/or part-time employees?

Too often, especially in media coverage, both the competitive academic job market and the hiring of temporary faculty are treated as if they’re recent developments. In reality there is discussion and research on this topic that spans more than 30 years (see this list of resources for more detail). If we look back over that period, what has been the “story” with contract faculty and the academic job market? Unfortunately, and as you might guess, the universities’ need for affordable and “flexible” labour goes back a long way.

Canadian universities underwent a period of rapid expansion in the 1960s; during this period Canada was making the shift from elite to mass PSE. Enrollments and faculty hiring ballooned, and the system expanded to accommodate this flood of students. Max von Zur-Muehlen wrote in 1978 that “during the last 20 years…the number of full-time teachers increased sixfold, from less than 5,000 in 1956-57 to almost 30,000 in 1974-75”. This balmy period came to an end in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when “increased rates of inflation and declining funding…translated into a tightening labour market and emergence of a part-time academic workforce in Canadian universities”, as discussed by Indhu Rajagopal and William D. Farr.

It was in this context that the first faculty unions were formed. OISE’s Glen Jones has done extensive research on the state of Canada’s professoriate; in 2013 he wrote that “the importance of unionization in terms of understanding the context of academic work in Canada is difficult to overstate.” Higher education is one of the most unionized sectors in Canada; universities usually have different unions for groups such as non-academic support and administrative staff, teaching assistants, research assistants, contract faculty, postdoctoral fellows, academic librarians and tenure-stream faculty — depending on the campus.

During the early 1970s, as “provincial governments moved to control the expenditures in the face of declining revenues and major recession,” tenure-stream faculty at some universities “became concerned with issues of job security and remuneration and pushed for their university faculty association to be recognized as a labor union under the provincial labor law. [The] majority of the full-time Canadian university faculty became members of recognized unions by the 1980s” (Tudiver 1999, in Jones, 2013). When I was writing this post, I hit a gap in the research regarding when and how TA and contract faculty unions were organized; it seemed there was less information available on their development. I heard from different sources that these unions were certified from as early as the 1970s, to the 2000s.

Max von Zur-Muehlen’s 1978 paper highlights the expansion of Canadian universities during the 1960s, and the subsequent decline of government funding in the 1970s. Von Zur-Muehlen also speculates about how universities might respond to this loss of financial resources: they “might not hire new faculty although an increase in enrolment over the next few years is likely. Or, to economize, they might fill positions that become vacant through retirement and death with graduate students and part-time teachers.” An increased reliance on contract faculty was, in the late 1970s, already on the table given the operational logic and context of the universities at that time. This logic, which is also regularly described as if it’s a new development, has been a contributing factor in the increased hiring of contract faculty for almost four decades.

How did this issue play out, given the dynamic of resource distribution during periods of declining resources and increasing enrollment — i.e. in a “zero-sum” funding environment? Glen Jones argues that “maintaining the status and the supportive working conditions of the full-time, tenure-stream professoriate has largely been accomplished through labor cost efficiencies created by the increasing use of part-time, contractual university teachers, now frequently represented by labor unions that are distinct from their full-time peers.” Rajagopal and Farr go further with this point, arguing that “the result of full-time faculty unionization is to further entrench an existing inequitable distribution of material and non-material resources within the university.” What Jones describes as the “fragmentation” of the academic workforce is an unintended outcome of how the security and stability of tenure is enabled by the use of “flexible” labour.

Meanwhile the lack of data that Rajagopal and Farr commented on back in 1992 is a problem that persists today. It’s generally agreed that the proportion of university teaching done by contract faculty has increased over time, but there is so little data, and so little of it comparable, that it’s impossible to form a clear picture of the current situation. The complexity of categorization in the different roles contract faculty take on also contributes to this problem. A 2014 Ontario study (PDF) by Field, Jones, Karram Stephenson and Khoyetsyan showed that while contract faculty numbers had increased overall, individual institutions were taking diverse approaches — including some that were reducing contract hiring. This study only included graduate student instructors and sessionals, not other positions that involve temporary and part-time teaching.

All this might be different if contract teaching wasn’t viewed (and treated) as an academic dead-end. But in the academic prestige economy, teaching experience of this kind is not usually the route to stable employment (in the form of a tenure-stream job). Sarah Kendzior argues that contract faculty end up in a vicious cycle where they’re “viewed as ‘tainted’ by their own job experience, and their low status regarded as ‘proof’ that they never deserved a tenure-track position.” On top of this, they have very few opportunities for professional development, though to have a chance at tenure-stream positions in future they must somehow continue to expand their CVs.

The work done by contract faculty also isn’t visible or recognized, because “the economy of the university system and…the ideological structures of academic practices” don’t admit its importance and relevance to how the institution operates (Rajagopal & Farr, 1992). All this contributes to frustration at the lack of academic prospects and the inadequate support for the work they do. Frustration is predictable and justified, given the dominance of the academic “success” script in doctoral education, and the resources and years of work that PhDs often put towards this goal. Contract faculty also lack the job security and academic freedom that are conditions of work for tenure-stream professors, so it’s more difficult for them to speak out about these issues without fear of penalty.

Lastly, contract teaching work is also gendered: in Canada, women have been consistently over-represented among part-time and non-permanent academic staff. It’s therefore “difficult to avoid connecting the fact of ‘invisibility’ and marginalization of part-timers to the fact that women’s representation among part-timers” is so much higher than in the tenure-stream ranks — even now, more than 20 years after those cited words were written (also see: CAUT Factbook, 2013–2014).

All this teaching is necessary and vital work because of the ongoing massification of postsecondary education. While we haven’t seen the kind of growth that happened in the 1960s, Field et al. note that in Ontario (e.g.) “The number of full-time equivalent students in…universities increased by 52 percent during the ten-year period from 2000-2001 to 2009–2010, while the number of full-time tenure-stream faculty increased by only 30 percent.”

I’ve written this piece focused mainly on the past, not to offer a cynical view and shrug it off with “plus ça change!” but more to put the present in perspective — the point is that we need to understand the roots of the problems we face right now, and how they have developed over time. If the problem is not “new”, if indeed it’s an entrenched part of how universities now operate, what are the implications? Work that helps the university achieve its core mission should not be work that is marginalized and devalued. While I hate to end a post like this with another question, I have to ask: if teaching is what universities do — and this is also the public perception — then what message does it send to address the need for teaching in this way?

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. May King / March 12, 2015 at 03:03

    Dear Ms. Fullick:

    Thank you for your insightful ending question: “if teaching is what universities do — and this is also the public perception — then what message does it send to address the need for teaching in this way?”
    It takes me more than 40 years to realize the BIG DIFFERENCE between the ART in TEACHING and the MANIPULATION in DOING BUSINESS according to the old saying:”who can they do, who cannot they teach”.

    The majority interprets that teachers who cannot do, teach. However, the truth is that teachers have CONSCIENCE, they cannot DO like the CON ARTISTS (= BUSINESS PEOPLE) who don’t have CONSCIENCE and can do anything to harm people or country just for MONEY.

    In conclusion, all universities should consider STOPPING the practice in GIVING AWAY DOCTORATE TITLE to business people who abuse their money and influence to buy out other smaller business then laying off employees for their gain. For example, Microsoft bought out some divisions of AT&T then laying off a massive amount of 15,000 employees from both operations of Microsoft and AT&T. Why should Bill Gates deserve a title of Doctorate?

    If business people DO NOT have conscience, then it does not matter how much money they have or donate to one or many universities, they JUST CANNOT have the privilege of the entitlement in Doctorate. I hope that my suggestion is the answer for your insightful ending question of “what message does it send to address the need for teaching in this way?” = “business people can buy academic title; they can manipulate and control academic conscience.” As a result, business people will operate the art in TEACHING with CONSCIENCE as the manipulation in DOING BUSINESS without conscience.

    It is sadden learning world for all whenever business people can control public education from kindergarten to higher education level. Back2basic

  2. Evgeny Efremkin / March 18, 2015 at 16:35


    Thank you for this article on a very painful issue. What attracted my attention with the last vote at York is that it was the Contract Faculty (unit 2) who agreed to go back to work. I take it to be a sign of “helplessness” as most contract faculty members are well beyond their graduate study years, and need this income, in most cases, just to survive. Thus they cannot risk prolonging the strike, although they are the ones who get the worse part of the deal (that is getting paid substantially less for doing the same work). It is the graduate students (although many of them also have families) who can bear the brunt of the strike as their livelihood expenses (not universal of course) are much less than those who graduated long time ago and teach on contract.

    As far as collective action is concerned I think it is the students (both Graduate and Undergraduate) who can make an actual change (as was also seen today with the UofT undedrgads demanding reimbursement of their fees for classes lost). It is the students who suffer the most usually, as some are expecting to graduate and have jobs lined up (happened before with some of my students at York), but cannot due to strike. Moreover, hiring too many Contract Faculty Profs definitely reduces the quality of education in the classes.