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Confronting the conditions of contract faculty

By MELONIE FULLICK | February 26, 2016

On February 11th I participated in the Confronting Precarious Academic Work conference put on by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations. While I was only able to attend for the first day, I got to moderate a pretty kick-ass panel—the speakers were Maria Maisto, co-founder and president/executive director of the New Faculty Majority and NFM Foundation in the U.S.; Jonathan White, a bargaining and negotiations official from the U.K.’s University and College Union; Robyn May from the University of Melbourne in Australia, whose PhD (and other research) focused on casualization in Australian universities; and Mark Crane, chief negotiator for contract academic staff at Ontario’s Nipissing University. Bringing together these different perspectives, the panel discussion was focused on “building solidarity among faculty, students and the broader community” with regards to the conditions faced by contract academic faculty (CAF).

I thought the themes raised by these speakers (and by the audience, in response) were worth recapping in a blog post, so here we go…

Adapting to specific contexts: The panel members explained some important differences between Canada and other countries, which set the context for the discussion. These differences in the environment shape the specific problems faced by CAF, as well as the political goals and strategies that work best. For example, it matters whether PSE is national or, as in Canada, provincial jurisdiction; how much unionization there is, and whether contract and permanent faculty are in the same unions; the nature of relevant laws and policies at institutional, provincial and national levels; the degree of marketization in the system; and the extent to which academic work has been unbundled and casualized.

Obtaining relevant data: Information is part of the base on which to build political arguments and strategy; organizing for any kind of change is hard when you don’t have much information to work with. It seems that many universities are not even collecting numbers on CAF hiring and compensation, let alone making them available—and this is a problem not unique to Canada. I tend to agree with Kate Bowles that “any data that universities aren’t tracking is data that universities don’t want to know.” The answer to the data question is usually that it’s too difficult for universities to produce comparable information. What would need to happen in order for these numbers to be collected in a systematic way, and shared beyond the university?

Informing the public and changing perceptions: A related problem is that the general public isn’t very well informed about how universities work, or at least that’s the impression I got from a keynote by André Turcotte in which he discussed a recent opinion poll commissioned by OCUFA. This poll had what sounded like somewhat mixed results, which might explain some of the divergent interpretations—compare the positive assessment from OCUFA with the pessimism in this Globe and Mail article.

Because of this lack of understanding, we need to clarify key technical points such as the difference between tenure-stream and non-tenured faculty, and why this matters. There’s also a difference between the proportion of profs who are in temporary positions, and the proportion of teaching being done by CAF—it would be helpful to get this clear (which is tricky, of course, without data). Even our choice of words matters when framing and explaining the issue: Robyn May pointed out that the use of language like “sessionals” obfuscates the nature of the work, which is why she uses the term “casuals” instead. It’s also unhelpful to refer to CAF collectively as “part-time” faculty, when many are working full-time (sometimes at multiple institutions).

Describing specific CAF working conditions and their effects: While contract faculty jobs are precarious and underpaid, so is an increasing amount of work in the current economy; the “big picture” is the decline of stable work that provides livable wages, and how that gap affects people’s lives. At the same time, when people hear the words “university professor” they tend to think of privilege. So it’s important to communicate in detail how, for contract faculty, precarious conditions combine with low institutional status and lack of professional support, leading to financial and health problems, low morale and burnout. None of these things is in the best interests of students or those teaching them, thus they’re not in the best interests of universities, either.

Emphasizing the connection between job security and quality: Directly related to working conditions, the point about quality of education is central—not that the quality of teaching is any lower from contract faculty or that they are less skilled, but that it’s very difficult for them to provide quality education when their working conditions are so unstable and restricted, and the work is poorly compensated.

Enabling long-term goals and strategies: Changing the conditions for CAF will involve pushing for slower and more incremental changes over time, alongside the popular events and campaigns that bring short-term attention (the New Faculty Majority in the U.S. is a great example, as is Australia’s CASA). This takes a level of commitment that not everyone can provide, and it could be hard to sustain in the long term. Depending on context, it can be difficult for contract faculty to participate in organizing because often naming the problem means becoming the problem, which brings the very real possibility of losing access to jobs in the future.

Developing widespread, long-term support means attending to the differences within the broad category of contract faculty, including by discipline, by position and by type of institution. Robyn May explained that in Australia some CAF want to be permanent faculty, while others (far fewer) are “casual by choice,” and some are retirees. Organizing efforts and strategies also need to be inclusive of CAF who are affected by issues relating to race, gender, disability and so on—the intersectional nature of the contingent work experience (and its outcomes) is fundamental.

Building solidarity within and beyond the higher education sector: Jonathan White emphasized the importance of national, multi-level campaigns that are vertically and horizontally diverse, i.e. they include different levels in the postsecondary sector—alongside targeted local campaigns. This includes working with established academic organizations such as the MLA in the U.S. and, in Canada, the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Speakers also discussed creating external alliances and coalitions with community groups and workers from other sectors where precarious work is a problem. Maria Maisto mentioned that reaching out to parents is yet another way of building awareness and influencing public opinion.

Building solidarity with tenure-stream faculty: I got the sense that tenure-stream faculty support was seen by CAF as unreliable, even when those colleagues are informed about the issues involved. One difficulty is that some contract faculty are in the same union as tenure-stream profs, which can lead to conflicts of interest during contract negotiations. Jonathan White pointed out that it’s important for permanent faculty to understand how universities’ dependence on CAF makes things more difficult for everyone (for example, increased service loads), and is a larger problem for the renewal of the disciplines, the development of careers for aspiring scholars and the work being done in the profession overall.

Working with administrators who want to change things: This is a suggestion I don’t recall hearing during the conference, but I think the discussion about administrators in higher education could be more nuanced. Maybe it’s not the best idea to assume that everyone working in administration is “badmin” and that if a faculty member takes an administrative role, they’ve “gone to the dark side.” Administrators are often seen as adversaries because they’re the ones making the decisions we disagree with. But many of those working in administration are just as frustrated about this situation as faculty and students are.

After this informative panel I still found myself asking: what does solidarity entail, in the long term, and in the Canadian context? How do we build bridges from rhetoric to action, not just on the part of contract faculty but from those who are “in solidarity” with them, including tenure-stream colleagues? OCUFA’s We Teach Ontario pledge states, “I support fairness for contract faculty: equal pay, benefits, and job security.” Does this mean “equal to tenure-track faculty”? What should tenure-stream faculty be doing to support CAF colleagues? While moral support is necessary, given some of the challenges raised at the conference, I’m wondering about the practical implications. If we’re going to act on the premise that “every academic job should be a good job” then we need a clear sense of what “good” is, and in what ways this can and should be achieved.

For example, are universities being advised to eliminate the use of contract faculty altogether, or to reduce their numbers while beefing up pay, job security and working conditions for those who remain employed? If universities add long-term positions, will they hire those who’ve already been teaching on contract, or will they recruit new PhDs instead? These connections to the (highly competitive) academic job market and to the funding conditions for universities are part of what makes the tentacular issue of contingent work hard to approach from only one angle. What’s changing now is that the work and those who do it are no longer as “invisible” as they were in the past—and ongoing CAF activism is bringing into view the very tangible outcomes of the deep contradictions affecting how universities operate. Even if we don’t have immediate answers, the discussion is now happening on these terms and that, in itself, is something to celebrate.

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. Shawn Warren / March 12, 2016 at 7:15 pm

    Hello Melonie

    Thank you for the report. Given your dissertation and that you produced this report, I think it might makes sense to introduce you to a unique, viable response to the academic labour problem (and other problems) that plague the Canadian, American, British, Australia and other PSE systems.

    The new PSE model I have developed will provide:

    1) Tuition-free HE at all levels
    2) Unlimited access to HE for all individuals: students (education) and academics (income)
    3) 75% reduction in the total cost to provide HE (i.e., the student and government contributions)
    4) Billions of dollars in new revenue for public and private coffers
    5) Improved quality of HE
    6) Funding for non-educational student expenses
    7) Migration of HE from the capitalist to the social economy
    8) Solution to the academic labor problem
    …among other benefits.

    The current PSE model is an institutional one. I have developed an alternative way to provide the social good of higher education that does not rely on colleges and universities (though it is compatible with them: It does not rely on technology, government funding, philanthropy or unionization (though it is compatible with the latter:

    Higher education can (and should) be offered from within a professional model of service provision, as accountants, dentists, attorneys, physicians, etc., offer their equally valued and personal services. Doing so would heal not only the academic labour problem but so much more that is wrong with PSE.

    The Professional Model is described here:

    As a means of “enabling long-term goals and strategies” that are not at odds with the current institutional model, its administrators or tenure-stream faculty it is superior to any conventional response from within the currently defunct institutional model.

    I hope you find merit in this alternative model and more importantly I hope you find use. The public and personal tragedy of PSE needs correction.

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