In a piece published in the current issue of University Affairs, one of Carleton’s “Contract Instructors”, Timothy Pettipiece, raises some interesting issues about what others are calling the “lost generation” of scholars, particularly in the humanities and social sciences: those who would dearly love to undertake an academic career, and have the qualifications to do so, but are stymied by the sheer lack of full-time tenure-track positions at Canadian universities. A number of his points merit some comment.
The first relates to my previous statement about the absence of jobs. This absence is very real. When I was a junior faculty member in the early 1980s, the monthly issues of University Affairs and the CAUT Bulletin were of considerable thickness, with roughly 50 percent of the pages devoted to ads for full-time faculty positions. Now the few ads that remain in the very much slimmer publications tend to be larger, often occupying full pages, but are primarily for Canada Research Chairs or senior management positions, with only a few rare postings for entry-level tenure-track professorships … and those almost always in the STEM disciplines.
It is not hard to understand why. University budgets are increasingly being squeezed, and most have experienced significant budget cuts over the past decade, with no end in sight. In Ontario, the per capita student grant has not changed in many years, and the only way for institutions to cope with inflation has been to take on increasing numbers of students while at the same time devising ways to teach them at a lower cost. With the demographics suggesting that increasing student numbers can no longer be taken for granted, and indeed we have witnessed an actual decline in applications in Ontario for the current year (particularly in the “arts”) after many years of continued growth, the proverbial you-know-what is about to hit the fan. Other possible solutions – for example, putting all of one’s eggs in the basket of attracting more international students, or borrowing money to fund operations in the hope that there will be more prosperous days ahead – are risky, and more than one university has already come to grief as a result. Simply put, the system that has been in place for many decades is now “broke”, and no one knows how to fix it without spending a lot more money on PSE than the government can afford or that taxpayers are willing to commit. As the Executive Director of OCUFA confided to me about seven years ago: “John, no government will ever get elected by promising to raise taxes to pay for more university professors.” Taxpayers (and students) will of course get the university system that they pay for, and at the moment in Ontario that is a system in which a lot of the teaching is done by part-time faculty: about 25 percent at the undergraduate level in FASS. No university is happy with that situation, but none have any real control over their income. If we charged fees comparable to American or even British institutions, things would be different. But we don’t, and can’t (as governments regulate fees) and there are good reasons for that too.
The only alternative to increasing income is decreasing cost, and that means asking full-time faculty either to take salary cuts (not very practical in a unionized environment, although I know at least one faculty member who is advocating this), or to teach more classes (but the trend is markedly in the other direction), or else to have more courses taught by those who are paid at marginal rates only to teach, and who are not offered much in the way of benefits or job security. I am reliably informed that the long-term cost of hiring a tenure-track faculty member in an age when no one can ever be required to retire is roughly $4M. That’s a big commitment for institutions which themselves are offered no medium- or long-term security with regard to their funding.
So, yes, it is indeed a very different world from 30-40 years ago, and in some respects not a better one if you are a graduate student just completing a doctorate and looking for an academic job. More on this next week, and I’ll also comment on Dr. Pettipiece’s thoughts regarding the behavior of hiring committees, much of which I happen to agree with.
John Osborne is dean of Carleton University’s faculty of arts and social sciences.