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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2009

Broader Rights for Contract Academics

Grandparenting provisions & rethinking research are key issues in moving to the pro-rata model for contract academic staff

By Cindy Oliver, Catherine Christie, George Davison, Sandra Hoenle, Kelly MacFarlane, Geoff Martin, Rick Gooding & Leslie Jermyn

There is widespread agreement that when it comes to academic work, teaching, research, professional activity, and service and professional development are part of the job, and all academic staff should have an opportunity for full participation in all elements of the job. There is also widespread recognition that over the past 25 years, academic institutions have greatly expanded the share of so-called teaching-only positions at the expense of permanent positions rewarded with progression and decent pay, benefits and working conditions.

But those of us who have been promoting a pro-rata model with a research and service component for contract academic staff need to address the question of how the transition from the current state to pro-rata would work. (In a sentence, the pro-rata model provides that contract academic work, including teaching a single course, should involve all responsibilities of the academic job and should be expressed as a percentage of full-time work.)

There are some who claim many contract faculty prefer teaching-only jobs — including full-time ones — or they have worked for so long in a teaching-only capacity that they have lost the ability and/or desire to do the research or creative components of the job.

But part of the problem with this perception is a diminished sense of what “research” is. We argue research is about “dissemination of knowledge” and we should not accept overdramatized claims that peer-reviewed publication is the only acceptable form of research.

Most of our full-time collective agreements contain a broader definition of research, which should be recognized for contract academic staff as well as faculty who are tenured or tracked for tenure. Research and creative activity take many forms, including book reviews, public lectures, conference presentations, artistic production, popular writing and other similar activities.

There are contract academic staff living a life of extreme precarity, exploited in teaching-only positions and without the time or resources for research or service opportunities. Employers seem little concerned that Canada’s research culture has suffered, along with the academy’s ability to communicate research and creative traditions to students.

As we work towards the pro-rata model, we must balance the interests of the academic profession as a whole, with the interests of contract academic staff, who in past times would have joined the ranks of the securely-employed. The chief interest of the academic profession as a whole is that we have a profession, that academic staff have job security, academic freedom, decent pay and benefits, and that we are able to put our knowledge to work for the benefit of our students, our institutions, and Canadian and global society.

Contract academic staff have gone from a small minority of the teaching staff at most Canadian campuses, to an army of people who often do as much as 40 to 50 per cent of the undergraduate teaching. If this number continues to grow, it will threaten the existence of the academic profession as we know it by staffing colleges and universities with instructors who are paid to do only part of the academic job. The situation is even worse in the United States, an example we don’t want to follow.

Yet, Canadian academic staff associations cannot participate in throwing contract academic staff onto the trash heap. Like Molière’s character Monsieur Jourdain, who learns he has been speaking prose all his life without knowing it, many long-serving contract academic staff do research and creative activities even while being told — and believing — that they don’t. We must recognize that in higher education, all instructors should be able to engage with scholarly activity and creative work in their disciplines.

Long-serving contract staff may lack confidence to take the next step because employers have told them in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that they don’t count. An inclusive post-secondary system can reverse this harm by providing colleagues who lack the pay or job security of those on the tenure track with the time and resources necessary to perform their professional duties.

We must negotiate pro-rata for those off the tenure-track as a way to preserve the profession, but we must also incorporate “grandparenting” provisions that can take several different forms. First, we fully expect that when pro-rata is achieved it will be phased in over a number of years, providing a built-in buffer for those concerned about making the transition.

Further, we should establish the norm that all who work as academic staff will undertake the full range of academic duties. We are confident a vast majority of contract staff will be eager to participate fully, particularly when we envision research and creative acti­vities in a much broader sense. However, those who have been in teaching-only positions for many years and don’t want to shoulder a research component should be allowed to finish their academic careers on a stipendiary basis.

The current system, in which an increasing amount of teaching was assigned to “teaching-only” instructors, came at a great cost. Economic inequality among academic staff increased, and we became increasingly separated by a realm of haves and have-nots. And people had truncated academic careers, because their research potential was quashed and in many cases promising young academics have left the profession. Pro-rata is our effort to fight this.

Our guiding principle must be that all academic staff at an aca-demic institution, whether it is an undergraduate college or university with doctoral programs, should be able to participate in the full academic life of that institution regardless of appointment status. From this transition will come a much healthier system, one in which students and society are well served by academic staff who undertake all aspects of the academic job.

Cindy Oliver, Catherine Christie, George Davison, Sandra Hoenle, Kelly MacFarlane, Geoff Martin, Rick Gooding and Leslie Jermyn are members of CAUT’s contract academic staff committee.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.

CAUT welcomes articles between 800 and 1,500 words on contemporary issues directly related to post-secondary education. Articles should not deal with personal grievance cases nor with purely local issues. They should not be libellous or defamatory, abusive of individuals or groups, and should not make unsubstantiated allegations. They should be objective and on a political rather than a personal subject. A commentary is an opinion and not a “life story.” First person is not normally used. Articles may be in English or French, but will not be translated. Publication is at the sole discretion of CAUT. Commentary authors will be contacted only if their articles are accepted for publication. Commentary submissions should be sent to Liza Duhaime (