We live in a time of great change in the Canadian post-secondary education sector. Our classrooms are bulging with students, government financing is increasingly being tied to research performance, commercialization is on the rise, a remarkable percentage of tenured and continuing academics will retire in the next 10 years, and the list goes on.
This is a period of both challenge and opportunity. Maybe it's time everyone in the post-secondary sector rethought how we treat the most disadvantaged employee group, our part-time and full-time colleagues who teach on a sessional or limited-term basis and hence are referred to as contract academic staff (CAS). Reconsidering the role of CAS will help ensure the future of the Canadian post-secondary system.
We all know the post-secondary system thrives on a three-part mission - we teach, we carry out research and we provide service. All of this benefits the students, our institutions and society at large. However, over the past 20 years governments and administrators have been pushing the idea that not all members of the academic community need to do all these things. This claim is not supported by the everyday reality on campuses across North America.
Administrators have increased the percentage of the professoriate holding short-term, teaching-only positions. Since it is not possible to meet the minimum standards of performance we all agree are important without doing research or providing service, administrators are exploiting CAS to benefit the bottom line.
What administrators are saying is that in the interest of budget constraints it is okay to waste the potential of CAS and short-change our students. Tenure-stream faculty will be forced to work harder on the teaching and service side as well, serving on more institutional committees, supervising more advanced students and writing more letters of reference.
Academic staff associations, with the help of CAUT, continue to resist this movement. However, now is the time to go on the offensive and challenge this teaching-only mentality that would create a multi-tiered professorate. We are told that we are facing a shortage of new faculty to address the coming masses of retirements. We are told that in a post-industrial, knowledge-based society, higher education and research are more important than ever before.
Of course, there is a great diversity in contract academic staff. Some have established careers outside the post-secondary sector and accept the idea they are in teaching-only positions. Others are near the end of their working lives and just want to continue as they have for many years.
There are many more, however, who have the qualifications and interest to become full-fledged members of the academic community. They already do much more than teach and they are an indispensable pool of people who can help the coming transition in the post-secondary sector. In the coming years we must decide if we will use or waste this resource.
It is time to push for conversion language that makes it possible for qualified CAS to be converted to tenured and tenure-stream appointments in their institutions. These should be positions that recognize teaching, research and service, rather than teaching-only positions under fancy names like "instructor," "teaching master," "fellow," "adjunct," or any other moniker. It's equally important that we move away from per-course contracts and towards a pro rata model of academic employment.
In this latter model, the bulk of contract academic staff will have appointments that provide them pay and benefits not only for teaching but also for both their preparation and contribution to the life of the academy. Preparation involves not just preparation of lectures. It means active engagement in research. Contributions are not limited to assessment and feedback to individual students, but also mean participation in academic governance and the development of high-quality programmes.
We also need to fight for ranks and tenure. We believe the backbone of the post-secondary sector must be full-time, tenured positions. Positions other than these should be conceived of as a percentage of a full-time position. The job of an academic remains the same, regardless of whether it is part-time or full-time, continuing or limited-term.
Both faculty associations and employers will find managing easier when every academic appointment is full-time or a percentage of full-time, rather than the existing thicket of different types of contracts.
Recent thinking of the nature of scholarship reinforces our argument that contract academic staff have a fundamental role to play in the system. In his book, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, Ernest Boyer, past president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, defines academic work broadly as four separate, yet overlapping functions - the scholarship of discovery, integration, application and teaching. Many of the ideas are incorporated in CAUT policy, including the Policy Statement on Fairness for Contract Academic Staff.
Everyone engaged in the academic pursuit is undertaking all of these. Teaching-only positions are academically unsound and they short-change contract academic staff, students and institutions. We need to insist that teaching, research and service are inseparable. To go forward in the future we need to encourage and compensate everyone in the post-secondary sector. Contract academic staff are willing to (re)build our institutions in the future, but we expect better terms than those offered in the past. The strong institutions of the future and the strength of the post-secondary sector as a whole will be determined by our willingness to take up this challenge.
Article contributed by CAUT's Contract Academic Staff Committee.