Like many (if not most) magazines, University Affairs relies heavily on freelance writers. We simply cannot afford enough full-time staff to fill our pages (and our website) and so we depend on the very good work of our regular freelance contributors.
We pay our freelancers fairly well by industry standards. The problem is that the industry standards are appallingly low. We pay from about 50 cents to one dollar per word, so a 1,500-word feature might fetch a freelance writer … well, you can do the math. Full-time freelance writers are lucky if they make $40,000 a year and many make considerably less than that. There can be periods when work is scarce and there are no employee benefits. What’s more, the pay rates have remained stagnant for at least two decades.
We’d of course prefer to pay our freelancers more, but our budget is limited. If we did pay more, we’d likely have to cut in other areas, like photography or design or paper quality.
Does all this sound familiar? As you’ve likely guessed from the headline, I see a parallel here with the use of sessional instructors at universities. Universities rely heavily on these low-paid, part-time workers, but gosh darn it, they just can’t afford to pay them more – or, heavens, offer them full-time tenure-track positions.
I do sympathize with Canada’s universities. It’s not like they haven’t been hiring. According to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, about half of all university faculty in Canada have been hired in the last decade. In addition to replacing retiring faculty, universities have hired about 8,000 additional professors during that time.
But university enrolment continues to grow – the number of full-time university students has more than doubled since 1980 – outpacing the growth in faculty. The result: higher teacher-faculty ratios and an increasing reliance on the academic underclass of low-paid contract teachers.
I often wonder how contract teachers are viewed by tenured faculty. Do professors feel a bit uncomfortable seeing these highly trained individuals being treated as second-tier professionals? Is there a sense of solidarity, or is it easier to just not think about it?
It’s a muddle that I’m well acquainted with. Perhaps we could pay our freelance writers more and generally improve their working conditions. In recent years, some of our writers have joined syndicates which demand higher and more uniform pay rates, and we have complied.
Of course, the parallel between contract teachers and freelance writers is not exact. For one, many freelance writers choose this line of work because of the freedom it gives them, even though it is low-paid. I don’t doubt that contract teachers (or contingent faculty, or adjuncts, or whatever you choose to call them) also like their work, but I’m sure most would gladly give up the itinerant lifestyle for a full-time position with all the added benefits.