OPINION: Contract faculty deserve better – and they deserve our support

“Contract faculty form the backbone of our education but get relegated to its margins. They deserve better.” (Photo by Aidan Macnab)

For many students, a professor is little more than a shadowy figure of authority who stands at the front of the classroom.

At best, we’re inspired and moved by their teaching and wisdom. At worst, we resent them for boring the hell out of us in class, or being too tough with grades that can potentially decide our futures.

But what we all likely believe is the myth that our profs are well-paid scholars who’ve got cushy jobs for life.

We think of them as people with a prestigious title who get to be their own boss, sit comfortably in the ivory tower, and read, write and research as they please.

But while that’s true for some faculty members, it’s a reality that’s increasingly out of reach for an overwhelming number of our instructors.

Some contract faculty, also known as sessional lecturers or adjunct faculty, are now being referred to as the new “precariat” – workers who are underpaid and over-worked and who lack job security and financial stability.

Contract faculty perform the same tasks as full-time, tenure-track or tenured professors, but they’re denied most of the perks.

According to the Canadian Association of University Teachers, contract academics get paid an average 1/3 less per course than full-time professors.

A sessional instructor on our own campus told the Ryersonian last month that he makes close to $55,000 less than a full-time faculty member for teaching the same number of courses in a year.

And then there are the other perks. Things like the generous benefits and pension packages, sabbaticals and money for research and travel that are available to full-time faculty are all denied to sessional staff.

The sense of urgency around the need to address the issues facing contract faculty has been growing.

The recent college faculty strike was waged primarily around the need for job security and equal pay for sessional instructors. The striking faculty members stood resolutely by these demands for five weeks until they were legislated back to work.

Just days before the legislation, 95 per cent of striking members participated in a vote that turned down the employer’s offer by an incredible 86 per cent.

Over at the University of Toronto, 91 per cent of the contract faculty gave their union a strike mandate just last week to fight the precarious status of sessional instructors.

There are cautious hopes in the recently passed Bill 148 ­– better known for legislating a $15 minimum wage. The bill proposes equal pay for equal work, regardless of employment status. But there are concerns that the language in the legislation is not strong enough to protect precarious instructors.

Why should you care about any of these developments as a student?

Consider these statistics from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, published last month:

Contract faculty do almost half the teaching in undergraduate classrooms across Canada, and account for about one-third of all professors in the country. Put another way, poorly paid part-timers are now doing a great bulk of the teaching on our campuses.

So, why should you be concerned about the working conditions of these faculty members, aside from the basic principles of solidarity and human care?

Because your instructors’ working conditions are your learning conditions.

Consider this scenario: professor X is a sessional lecturer in Ryerson’s sociology department. Since graduating with a PhD about 10 years ago, she has been working as a contract faculty across different campuses. This semester, she’s picked up courses at Ryerson, Laurier and Guelph, which means she has to commute out of the city twice a week. Her assigned courses were only confirmed a few weeks before the start of the term, and two out of the three were courses she’d never taught before.

And when the academic year is over, she’s faced with the absurdity of having to apply for her jobs all over again. Since each course is offered as a temporary contract, she’s not guaranteed to teach the same class again and may have to design syllabi for new courses in a time crunch.

Meanwhile, Professor X is seeking a tenured job to get out of her current working situation, which would entail doing more research and publishing. But even though she has won grants and accolades for her innovative research in the past, she’s finding it hard to produce new work because of all the time she dedicates to teaching. And so the cycle of precarity continues.

Professor X may be hypothetical, but her situation is shared by scores of contract faculty on our campuses.

And what are you, the student, getting out of this deal?

How much time do you think our not-so-hypothetical prof can spend prepping for her classes? Or providing detailed feedback on assignments? Or being available to students outside her office hours?

Surely you feel entitled to a higher quality of education given the inflated tuition fees you pay (doubly so if you’re an international student!) – not a university experience running on the backs of precarious workers.

You may be tempted to ask: “But won’t better pay for my professors mean higher tuitions fees for me? Don’t I already pay enough?”

First off, you do pay far too much in tuition – not in the least because Ontario has the lowest level of per-student public funding than any province in Canada and the highest tuition fees.

And in the absence of this public funding, universities have resorted to cutting labour costs.

The Ontario Coalition of University Faculty Associations estimates that courses taught by sessional instructors in Ontario universities nearly doubled between 2000-01 and 2013-14.

But the rise of contract work isn’t inevitable. It simply reflects our universities’ current business model and priorities.

While our institutions seek out cheap labour, high-ranking members of university administrations rake in huge salaries. And arguments for fiscal responsibility don’t seem to dissuade our schools from spending exorbitant amounts of money on buying new property, establishing new hubs or running massive public relations and outreach strategies.

All the while, our tuition fees rise, class sizes swell up and our chances of getting an outstanding education continue to shrink.

As students, we need to demand our universities do better.

Contract faculty form the backbone of our education but get relegated to its margins. They deserve better.

And they deserve our support as their students.

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