Injustice in the University, a Role for Government?

Robert St. Pierre

After being without a contract since March, University of Manitoba professors ended a three-week long strike on September 21st. The staff had hit the picket lines after negotiations over a new deal with administration hit sticking points in the shape of salary and workload conditions. The deal saw an increase in the former for assurances made regarding the latter.

A blog post by Alex Usher, President of consulting group Higher Education Strategy Associates, argued that administration could have allowed for faculty salaries to rise by hiring more sessional professors to do the teaching at University of Manitoba, since they are paid at a rate of about ¼ of a full-time professor. As he coins it for full-time faculty, higher salaries + lower workloads = more sessional faculty. Although not ultimately the route chosen by UM administration as faculty forewent salary increase for promises on workload and tenure standards, the suggestion raises questions about the merits of such an approach from economic, political, and moral standpoints.

Sessional or contract faculty are an interesting group that can be hard to peg down. Some have full-time jobs and will teach a course as a side-gig to earn a little bit of extra money and share their industry-specific knowledge. For professional degrees such as law or public policy, this makes a great deal of sense. Economically speaking, the institution saves money that can be spent elsewhere. Politically speaking, the workload of full-time faculty may be lightened as a result, allowing them more time to work on research for the institution. However, there may be some moral questions about this. Even if their teaching is only a side-gig, should contract faculty be paid less, while having no job security or medical benefits? Ultimately, isn’t the most important part of a post-secondary degree the quality of the education for students? On that note, can we be certain that a higher proportion of contract faculty, who enjoy fewer work incentives than their full-time counterparts, offers students a high-quality education?

It is crucial to consider that a large share of contract faculty rely on institutional contracts as a primary source of income, and not as side-gigs. The deplorable work conditions faced by this group of precarious workers is the subject of a documentary that premiered in Ontario this past November, in the midst of the UM strike. The film is being toured around Ontario campuses, and screened at the Royal Cinema before faculty and interested spectators from Ryerson and York (U of T was contacted about spreading the word amongst its staff, but declined the opportunity to do so). Some of the issues raised include:

  • Having to prepare syllabi to compete for contracts, the fruits of which become the property of the hiring institution regardless of whether or not the applicant is hired, without compensation.
  • No guarantee of being re-hired to instruct a course that a particular contract worker has him/herself designed.
  • Being unpaid for research, and other common professorial duties outside of the classroom.
  • Being pulled between a number of post-secondary institutions to get enough contracts to make ends meet.
  • Being so stretched that coalescing with other professors and students becomes an impossibility – an effective impediment to collective assembly, perhaps indicated by the limited bargaining rights and participation in contract faculty unions.

This dire situation is surely a drain on such workers, with a high likelihood of worsened learning conditions for students. I might go so far as to modify Alex Usher’s equation to suggest that more sessional faculty = more stretched, precarious workers = worse learning conditions

Ultimately, learning conditions and the quality of education received is probably of greatest concern, both because of the positive effects of achieving a post-secondary degree, and because governments put money into achieving degrees both through institutions and directly to students. With this in mind, what can government do to ameliorate the situation for both contract faculty and students?

Role of Government

Institutional funding comes from both Federal and Provincial governments, but provinces are responsible for allotting that funding. Ontario’s current funding model bases institutional funding on student enrollment numbers; however, a 2015 review may change this. Measuring “bums in seats” does not account for educational quality, so much as it assures more people get the chance to access post-secondary education. Institutions are incentivized to let more people in, regardless of whether or not they are expected to successfully graduate, and to use more sessional faculty to cut costs and maximize profits. This allows funds to be channeled elsewhere, although where, exactly, remains unclear. Institutions don’t typically report these figures in a clear way, although it is generally known that administration positions and salaries have been increasing relative to academic positions in the past 20 years.

The Ontario government’s review of this model is understandable. However, future direction appears unclear, since the review lacked concrete recommendations. It doesn’t appear that stipulating contract terms for sessional workers, or tying funding to maintaining a steady ratio of full time and contract faculty are on the agenda.

Contract vs. Full-time

The relationship between contract and full-time faculty is increasingly complex. Perhaps in part due to increasing enrolment rates, full-time faculty are increasingly working past 65, while continuing to see their salary increase from year to year. This means that administrations are hiring less full-time staff and turning increasingly to sessional faculty to offset those costs. Interestingly though, despite an oft fractured relationship between the two groups of faculty, their interests are remarkably similar. For example, both desire payment for time spent researching and preparing for classes, and manageable class sizes. Full-time faculty are also likely to have spent some portion of their careers doing contract work. However, making the transition from contract to full-time employee is becoming increasingly difficult, and because full-time and sessional workers typically have separate unions with different bargaining rights, administrations can strategically pit one group against the other.

Ultimately, government involvement to improve the working conditions of contract faculty may be necessary. At the very least, stipulating a full-time vs. sessional ratio in funding agreements would ensure that institutional administrations aren’t spending nefariously, a charge that is often levied against them.

A new role for government? Better coordinating services for Contract Faculty amidst rising precarious work

In the end, contract faculty conditions may not, unfortunately, be a high priority for governments. Governments should, however, be concerned more broadly about the rise of precarious work which, in itself, includes academic sessional workers.

The time spent coordinating between Service Canada outlets and their employers is hard to come by for a group of workers who are in constant competition for the next course contract or, preferably, a full-time gig.

In a recent release on the subject of precarious work, a Policy Horizons piece highlighted the changing nature of work, and correctly noted the huge impacts of this trend on Canada’s social policy landscape. Many social insurance programs are tied to labour market attachment, including EI eligibility and the Working Income Tax Benefit (WITB) program. To be eligible for EI, a worker must have accrued between 420 and 700 hours in a 52 week qualifying period– a task that is difficult by contract terms for faculty, especially if an individual is only able to land one course in a given semester. In 2014, only 83 per cent of applicants were eligible, even though all workers pay into EI as of their first $100 earned. Contract faculty have fought to have their time spent outside of the classroom be considered for EI (see here), which remains a challenge. When Contract faculty don’t get as many contracts in a given semester, they require EI benefits to smooth income. This fight is very difficult for people who are being pulled in multiple directions to make ends meet. The time spent coordinating between Service Canada outlets and their employers is hard to come by for a group of workers who are in constant competition for the next course contract or, preferably, a full-time gig.

Whereas EI eligibility is punitive for not recognizing enough work, eligibility for the WITB program does the opposite and progressively removes benefits as of $7000. The maximum amount of tax credit available is $1000, which declines steadily after $7000 of earnings for individuals, and after $10,000 for couples, while only being applicable to earnings over $3000. Qualifying for the WITB for contract faculty is usually doable, as most contracts on average are $6000 per course. However, the rate at which the credit amounts from the WITB are lost as contract faculty teach more than one course and hence earn more than $7000 is a concern. It is exacerbated by the fact that the reduction in tax credits is not accompanied by a progressive gain in non-income benefits like medical or dental either. Many low-income earners face a similar welfare trap situation.

Furthermore, CPP rates are going to rise, and deductions are levied at $2400 of annual income, regardless of number of hours worked. Precarious, low-income workers such as contract faculty will be particularly impacted by this development without changes to social insurance programs and their means-tests, or improved working conditions.

If not modifications to university funding formulas, perhaps more can be done by government to better coordinate programs for the changing nature of work. Alterations to both appear unlikely, but for equality’s sake, changes to one are likely essential to improve the economic situations of more people, including often over-looked contract faculty.

Rob St. Pierre is originally from Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, where he completed his undergraduate degree at Wilfrid Laurier University.  His writing interests include social policy, indigenous issues, and political ecology. In his spare time, he is passionate about music, gardening, and documentary films.


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