Canada is not the only country where universities are increasingly relying on contract academics for “near-voluntary” part-time work. It’s the new norm of how most universities across European countries and as far away as New Zealand and Australia operate.
In New Zealand, 40 per cent of academic staff are contract or part-time employees. “It’s a major trend,” said Sandra Grey, president of the Tertiary Education Union of New Zealand. “In the space of a decade, the number of full-time jobs in our universities increased by only 11 per cent while casual jobs jumped by 48 per cent. Budgets haven’t increased and administrators claim they cannot afford to offer full-time jobs.”
In Germany, more than 50 per cent of early career academics are on short-term contracts, according to Marlis Tepe, past president of the education and science workers union of Germany. “In 2001, the ratio of contract instructors to permanent faculty members was 4 to 1. “By 2013, the ratio was 9 to 1. That’s not normal in a country as wealthy as Germany. We had to do something,” Tepe said.
The trade union leadership embarked on a public awareness and education campaign and used its lobby power to pressure the government. Their action won significant support and the German Parliament is now debating a pattern agreement providing contract teachers with better wages and working conditions.
“Administrators at higher education institutions in Denmark use all sorts of tactics to not hire people on a permanent basis,” reports Ingrid Stage, who heads the Danish university teachers union. “They give teaching assignments to assistants and use guest lecturers. All these individuals teach on our campuses but do not come under our collective agreement. We also see many academic researchers stuck in limited-term contracts that are often renewed very last minute.”
The Irish Federation of University Teachers “fights such abuses daily,” says the federation’s general secretary Mike Jennings. “Precarious employment is rampant in higher education.”
Victories for employees kept on temporary contracts have been emerging in recent years, Jennings said, but union efforts face threats from the increasing presence of the private sector on campus, the downgrading of research work and the attempt by some universities to completely privatize their activities.
In Ireland almost 100 per cent of researchers in higher education are employed on temporary contracts and “living in constant insecurity,” Jennings said. “They are granted a contract with nothing guaranteeing its renewal. All academic staff members must stick together and stand up against this mistreatment.”
Political action is also the way trade unionists in Australia want to change things, says Jeannie Rea, president of the National Tertiary Education Union of Australia.
“At a recent meeting with the education minister, I asked how many of the academic staff teaching his son — who attends a prestigious university — were lecturers. He replied three out of four, and voiced concern about the situation,” Rea noted.
She adds that 80 per cent of teaching staff and researchers in Australian universities and colleges are working on contract. “And it is not only a matter of funding. There are also more and more courses on-line. These people are difficult to mobilize because they are often invisible. Others show up for class, give their course, and leave. They are unlikely to know their rights. That is our challenge. An increasing number of teachers are at risk, but we have trouble reaching and organizing them.”
National Tertiary Education Union general secretary Grahame McCulloch noted that although the union has had success in improving working conditions for contract academics, administrators are now hiring guest lecturers to take over class teaching. “As in other sectors of the economy, we see a stratification of workers in the academic world that will hurt us in the longer term. We need to rethink staff roles.”
He suggests one way is to import a faculty model being used elsewhere to establish professional pathways and long-term contracts for valued workers that have been kept on contracts for years with no guarantee of renewal.
Action brings ideas to life, but “we need more of it,” adds IFUT president Michael Delargey. “Let us not forget our roots as labour unions. We can’t change the past, but we can change the future.”