In the ongoing massification of post-secondary education, university and college administrators are increasingly turning to temporary or contract academic staff to teach and work in their institutions’ lecture halls, labs and libraries.
“More than 30 per cent of academic staff in Canadian post-secondary institutions are faced with short-term, insecure employment and struggle to find decent work,” notes Sylvain Schetagne, CAUT’s director of research and political action.
Living with uncertainty about when and what you might teach next creates financial, intellectual and emotional strain. Most contract academic staff live on four-month contracts and worry about finding a job for the next semester.
“The inability to plan is a major issue and a great cause of stress in the lives of contract academics,” said James Gerlach, who has taught on contract at Wilfrid Laurier University since 2006 and also serves as chair of CAUT’s contract academic staff committee. “You can teach six courses one year and two courses the next year. You can live on six courses, but not two.”
According to a 2015 United Way report, precarious workers face significant barriers to building stable and secure lives. Precarious workers face greater challenges finding childcare and addressing health and safety concerns in the workplace. They face more gender and racial discrimination and spend less time with their families and in their communities.
Unpaid work is also a widespread reality of the insecure academic job landscape. Office hours, advisement and recommendation letters, for example, are rarely spelled out in contracts, but these tasks can be part of job expectations, says Gerlach.
“Contract academic staff are paid for a fraction of the work they need to do,” he said.
“You’re paid a stipend for teaching, but other work comes along — committees, reference letters, follow-up with students … it’s all unpaid work,” he says. “Employers argue we should stick to only what we are paid for.”
But he says this is nearly impossible to do. “We aren’t going to turn students away if they want help outside teaching hours.”
The lack of support for research is another issue facing contract academic staff. “Research is a necessary part of teaching at the post-secondary level,” Gerlach said.
“Whether you’re pursuing original research or reading articles to stay up to date in your field, or even if you’re not doing research in the traditional sense, you still are in the scholarly sense. It’s not optional —you just don’t get paid for it.”
In a competitive job market, contract faculty have to maintain a research agenda and build a publication record to be considered for tenure-stream positions, yet few have supportive working conditions or opportunities to build their CVs. “It’s a vicious cycle that employers are exploiting,” Shetagne said.
“Most universities boast of their commitment to research and teaching but then fail to reward the research output of at least one third of the academic workforce,” he added.
“Meanwhile, politicians are claiming that research and innovation are important for Canada’s social, cultural, environmental and economic development, but we have many highly-trained, highly-skilled academics who are not encouraged in their research efforts or inadequately supported for the work they do.”
It’s also more difficult for contract academics to speak out about these issues without fear of penalty. “If you are tenured, you have academic freedom,” Gerlach said. “In theory, contract academic staff have academic freedom but in practice you don’t because you have to be careful of what you say out of fear you’ll lose out on future contracts.”
If you teach a controversial class or a method different from the norm, you could simply not get offered the course next time around, according to Gerlach. “It has a real muting effect on academic freedom, especially for those trying to teach in more controversial areas. Precarious work breeds self-censorship.”
Contract academic staff are also often left with difficult choices about whether to participate in institutional governance. Even if they are willing to take on these responsibilities, their contributions may not be regarded as important and relevant to how the institution operates.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Gerlach notes. “If we don’t participate, our voices are lost and we’re disconnected from the rest of the faculty.”
He says this leads to a feeling of a caste system in academia with contract academic staff at the lowest ranks. “It hinders collegiality and interaction between academic staff,” Gerlach adds.
CAUT executive director David Robinson says exclusion from institutional governance structures has an impact on permanent staff as well.
“Because contract staff are discouraged from sitting on committees, it means more and more of that work falls on the shoulders of the dwindling number of regular staff,” Robinson said.
Then there’s the effect that the transient status and low salaries for contract academics is having on students. “Students are the major reason why we are at the university,” Gerlach argues. “Our precarious working conditions affect them. Students want to know what courses you’re teaching next year but you can’t answer.”
Students are selecting courses without an instructor of record listed. Meanwhile, instructors, who — depending on the needs of the school are often hired weeks before the semester begins — are left scrambling to prepare for the classes they are assigned to teach. As a result, contract academic staff are trying to stay one lecture ahead of the students, Gerlach adds.
“Students are saddled with skyrocketing tuition and facing the prospect of precarious jobs for themselves,” he said. “It’s difficult to support students outside the classroom and engage in the traditional relationships.”
He says students can’t distinguish between contract and regular faculty and often get frustrated about the lack of interaction when they need assistance on their lab or classwork.
“Students often ask to work in my lab,” Gerlach said. “I teach molecular biology and chemistry, but I have to tell my students that I don’t have a lab.”
“Raising awareness of these behind-the-scenes discrepancies is a first step forward,” Schetagne said. “CAUT is pressing institutions and governments to take action to improve the status of contract academic staff. The consequences of this new form of employment that’s becoming more and more prevalent reach across the academic spectrum.”
“There’s greater mobilization on casualization — in Canada, the US and internationally,” Gerlach adds. “For the first time in many years, we’ve really seen national and international discussion. We need to keep building on this momentum.”
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