According to the Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association, contract academic staff on temporary, per-course contracts taught 52 percent of all students registered in classes, tutorials, labs and seminars at the university in 2012. That 52-percent figure is interesting by its mere existence, since data on contract faculty (also known as contingent faculty or sessional instructors, among other terms) is difficult to come by in this country.
We also discover, via a quote from university spokesman Kevin Crowley in a story in the Waterloo Region Record, that there are 376 part-time faculty teaching at Laurier this fall. The number of contract academic staff cannot exceed 35 percent of full-time faculty, which number 600, Mr. Crowley said, adding that this rule was negotiated by the union and the university during the last full-time faculty contract. We also learn that a part-time instructor is paid about $7,200 per course (for one term, typically three months).
Again, these are very interesting facts that I point out not because of what they may or may not say about the university, but simply due to their rarity. Are these figures representative of the situation at other Canadian universities? We don’t really know, since there are no national data of any kind.
(The Laurier info, by the way, comes to light because the faculty association is in conciliation with the university to arrive at a new collective agreement for contract academic staff. As part of that, the faculty association is posting information on the working conditions of these instructors, and conciliation updates, on Tumblr.)
It would require some effort to compile national figures on the use of contingent faculty. There would be a lot of definitional issues that would need to be sorted out, because the rules and practices differ from institution to institution. But I’m sure it could be done.
There is some information out there on contract faculty, if you look hard enough. For instance, a blog by the University of British Columbia faculty association, written during contract negotiations in 2012 and 2013, had an entire post on contract academic staff. Of the 3,330 instructional staff, we learn that 815, or roughly one quarter, are on limited-term contracts. Most union members on contracts are either sessional lecturers (about 600 members) who hold appointments of less than one year, or 12-month lecturers (about 160 members) who hold appointments of at least one year.
But these numbers are somewhat deceiving, according to the blog. While representing one-quarter of all academic staff, these contract instructors “do a very significant amount of undergraduate teaching, accounting for as much as 70 percent (or more) of all undergraduate instruction in some departments.”
One of our own stories in University Affairs also had some information, though scant:
No one we talked to for this article knew of any consistent tracking of sessional use across the country. Some faculty associations are keeping track of the proportion of sessionals to regular faculty: at the University of Calgary, for example, the 529 sessional instructors represent 23 percent of the faculty workforce. But the union doesn’t know what proportion of courses are taught by sessional instructors. In Ontario, the recent Auditor General’s Report (which reviewed how three universities support and assess the quality of undergraduate teaching) noted that at one institution, sessional staff “accounted for 24 percent of full-time equivalent staff and were responsible for teaching approximately 40 percent of its courses.”
That article, “Sessionals, up close,” in our February 2013 print edition, was our attempt to fill the information void by putting together a sort of cross-country roundup on sessional working conditions by sampling the pay, benefits, job security and other key work-related conditions for sessionals at a range of small, medium and large Canadian postsecondary institutions.
In the U.S., there are much greater efforts to highlight the working conditions of adjunct and contingent faculty, most notably the New Faculty Majority, which lobbies on behalf of these instructors. It also has a foundation that “aims to be a clearinghouse for existing information about contingent faculty; to identify gaps in existing research on the role of contingent faculty in higher education; and to conduct original research on needed topics.” The Chronicle of Higher Education also has begun what it calls the Adjunct Project to gather pay and working conditions data about the nation’s adjuncts. Faculty and lecturers are requested to submit their data “to see how it compares to your colleagues around the country.”
One thing nearly everyone involved in the situation agrees on is that the status of contract academic faculty is, for the most part, abysmal. At Laurier, sessional instructors are allowed to teach up to three courses per semester, for a total theoretically of nine per year. However, according to the faculty association, on average, contract academic staff teach just 2.4 courses per year, for which they earn under $18,000.
What’s the solution? I don’t know. But, if we’re to address the situation in a serious way in terms of new policies, we need better data on which to base decisions. And, it would be far better for institutions to take the lead on this then to leave it to the provincial governments to sort it out. To quote a tweet from our blogger Melonie Fullick on a similar topic about addressing change in higher education: “Yes we can have ‘solutions’ but not when you’re sticking your fingers in your ears and singing ‘lalala’.”
Editor’s note: this post has been changed somewhat from the original to clarify a few points. See also the first comment below.