SCREW U: University instructors denied job security, benefits, pensions

Submitted by on


MOST OF OUR UNIVERSITY TEACHERS ARE GETTING SCREWED. They have few benefits, and no pension plan for retirement. They are paid by the course, with no guarantee that they will have their contracts renewed next term. They live like this for years, even decades.

They’re expendable.

It wasn’t always this way.  Once upon a time, tenured or tenure-track faculty did research and also shared their knowledge with students by teaching and advising them. Today, a small army of grossly underpaid “contract instructors” manage much of that teaching.

What brought this about? Cutbacks in education spending by provincial governments over the years, part of the “austerity” fad. That led to skyrocketing tuition and a mountain of student debt that takes years to pay off, changes in university policy favouring lucrative corporate links—and the exploitation of countless academic workers.

Teaching factories
Carleton University in Ottawa is just one of these teaching factories. In 2016, the President pulled down a salary of nearly $360,000. Her sizeable retinue of vice-presidents did very nicely, too, and much of the tenured faculty, particularly the senior ones, will not find themselves in the poorhouse anytime soon.

But contract instructors at Carleton (and other Canadian universities) are scraping along indefinitely at low-paid dead-end jobs. 30-40% of Carleton teaching staff are in this category. They are, like too many other workers in Canada, forced into the national precariat.

JOEL HARDEN was one of those teachers He received his PhD at York in 2006, joined the Canadian Labour Congress for a time, and then moved over to Carleton to teach in the Department of Law and Legal Studies from 2013-2015. He became Chief Steward for contract instructors at Carleton, a division of CUPE Local 4600. He presently works for the Canadian Federation of Students.

Harden’s job involved assigning and marking writing projects by his students. He quickly discovered a steep decline in the quality of education that students are receiving.

To hang on to their precarious jobs, contract instructors require 80% positive student evaluations at the end of classes. That cannot help but affect the quality of the teaching. As Harden notes, “In order to please the customer, there is an incentive to appease, rather than challenge students.”

As a union rep, he defended many colleagues who had not met the 80% threshold. Management knows there’s a problem here, he says, but refuses to build protections into the collective agreement.

Contract instructors are serfs
As for his own work at Carleton, that’s on the way out: written assignments are being replaced by tests that can be marked by computers.

Conversion (the drive to replace contract positions with permanent ones) is a perennial bargaining demand, Harden notes. But that’s an uphill climb at universities whose economy is increasingly based upon the continuing exploitation of contract labour. “Contract instructors are serfs, working on a feudal plantation,” says Harden.

CRAIG McFARLANE has been teaching at Carleton since 2007. He received his PhD from York in 2014. “I think I am a good teacher,” he says, “but I’m burned out.”

McFarlane is constantly preparing for new courses and, as he puts it, “trying to recover from teaching previous ones.” Any scholarly research he finds the time to do is on his own time, and is not compensated.

Working conditions, he says, are “atrocious.” He shares an “office” with 50-60 other people, and was locked out of it this past summer through administrative error.

“I should have quit this job years ago,” says McFarlane. “I have no academic prospects. My physical and mental health has suffered—likely irreparably—as a result of having worked as a sessional at Carleton.”

Between 50 and 70% of undergraduate courses are now taught by contract instructors. “Current tenured professors have allowed this exploitation to take place because it makes their lives better,” says McFarlane. “They are relieved from unwanted undergraduate teaching…their careers depend upon the present state of things.”

ANDREW ROBINSON teaches physics at Carleton. Two years ago, he wrote an open letter about teaching at Carleton, and his story was then picked up by CBC.

Robinson makes $34,000 for delivering 5 courses a year, effectively a full-time load. Officially classed as “poor” by Statistics Canada, he and his family receive provincial income assistance.

He is now 55 years old. He received his PhD in 1988. He and his spouse (also a contract employee) have a special needs child. He applied for full-time status, but was informed that this was “not in the strategic interests of the university.”

“Professors make $100K a year. I make a third of that with the same teaching load. It works out to about $24 an hour,” he says.

Robinson generates a lot of cash for Carleton.  In a single first-year course of 270 students, tuition is $1K, with international students paying more, and the province kicks in money as well: that brings in half a million dollars.    

Permanent faculty are at the top of a ‘caste system’
Like other contract instructors, Robinson has no idea what course he’ll be teaching in four months. If a member of the permanent faculty wants to teach his course, he’s bumped. Faculty are part of a “caste system,” he says, “and they’re the top caste.”

His working life is “constant precarity,” but the universities prefer the word “flexibility.” Yet Robinson counts himself relatively fortunate: he shares actual office space with only two others, and doesn’t teach at other universities as well, like so many of his fellow instructors, jokingly called “roads scholars.”

(One of Joel Harden’s colleagues took the bus every week to teach at Glendon College in Toronto, marking papers while he travelled. He’s endured 20 years of this.)

What is to be done about this downhill slide? Strong unions, says Harden. A political solution, says Anderson: even the powerful college union, OPSEU, which bargains for 28 colleges and 500,000 teachers at one table, was forced back to work by the Wynne government.

For Robinson, it comes down to this: the province must decide that “this labour standard is not okay.”

As labour standards and educational standards, continue to drop at our institutions of higher learning, it is clear that only a fundamental sea-change in education policy and the funding that goes with it will turn things around. And this can only be driven by unions on the ground and a pro-labour, progressive government that values investing in the generations to come—and in those who labour to educate them.


This article was originally published by The Canadian Labour Institute.  

Reprinted with permission for CALM Members use.