It’s time to invest in a faculty renewal strategy for Ontario’s universities

For years, full-time faculty hiring has stagnated at Ontario’s universities, even as student enrolment has increased dramatically. It’s time for the government to invest in a robust faculty renewal strategy.

Public funding is foundational for a postsecondary system that provides accessible, quality education to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds. While recent efforts have increased accessibility to postsecondary education through a refinement of the Ontario Student Grant (OSG), over the past decade, Ontario has been losing ground to the rest of the country when it comes to funding our universities. On a per-student basis, Ontario’s university funding levels are 35 per cent lower than the Canadian average, and we have ranked last in per-student funding for over eight years. This trend cannot continue. It’s time for government commitment to re-investing in Ontario’s universities.

Continued underfunding has left Ontario with the highest student-faculty ratio in the country, resulting in dramatically larger class sizes. In the last decade, Ontario university student enrolment has grown seven times faster than full-time faculty hiring. As a result, there are now 31 university students for every full-time faculty member, far surpassing the rest-of-Canada average of 22 to 1. The increasing student-faculty ratio has drastic implications for the overall quality of education and student experience at our universities.

I am fortunate that I hold a tenured position at a small university in a program with relatively small class sizes. I know first-hand how engaged students are with their education when I am able to appreciate them as individuals, respond to their different ways of learning, and bring my research into the classroom every day.

The disparity between student enrolment and faculty hiring has impacted education quality by generating larger classes with less one-on-one student-faculty engagement. Among other concerns, this leads to fewer opportunities for mentorship and academic or career advising. Renewed public investment in full-time faculty hiring is integral to closing the gap between the number of students studying and faculty working on our campuses.

Every student’s learning experience and every university’s capacity to produce research relies on the faculty members who teach, research, and engage in their communities. The stagnation in public university funding and faculty hiring is putting a strain on our higher education system. Larger class sizes mean that faculty are increasingly facing time and capacity constraints. With only so much time in the day, faculty research is under threat. As research capacity becomes strained, Ontario’s knowledge economy will lose out on the most innovative ideas and developments. These exciting possibilities will also be lost to the students in our classrooms, as professors are less able to contribute to forward-thinking curriculum development.

This stagnation in full-time faculty hiring has paralleled the estimated doubling of courses taught by contract faculty at Ontario universities since 2000. Research by the Council of Ontario Universities suggests that 58 per cent of faculty are now working on contract. This growing reliance on precariously employed contract faculty is another of the consequences of the underfunding of Ontario’s postsecondary institutions. It has grave repercussions for the individuals working in these positions and for our public educational institutions more broadly.

The stagnation in public university funding and faculty hiring is putting a strain on our higher education system

Contract faculty are highly qualified and experienced teachers and researchers. Unfortunately, they lack job security, face unpredictable scheduling, and often juggle jobs at multiple institutions. Their working conditions make it difficult to provide students with one-on-one engagement and continuity throughout their degree program. This can have a significant impact on student learning outcomes, with some students choosing not to take the next course in a sequence or, more worryingly, not completing their programs. Moreover, contract faculty receive a fraction of the pay of their full-time counterparts for doing the same work. I think this is simply unfair and 87 per cent of Ontarians agree that contract faculty should receive the same pay for teaching the same courses as full-time faculty.

We currently stand at a point where precarious work is becoming the new norm in our institutions and our universities are engaging in labour practices that run counter to the public’s strong desire that their universities should be model employers. Instead of denying contract faculty fair pay, job security, or benefits, our publicly funded universities should embrace the values of equity and social justice so important in our communities and throughout postsecondary education.

Moving forward, both the provincial government and individual universities need to invest in a faculty renewal strategy that begins reversing these worrying trends—trends that raise class sizes, increase precarious work, and threaten education quality. This strategy should include measures that provide pathways for converting more contract faculty into full-time, tenured positions. Such an initiative is strongly supported by Ontarians, 85 per cent of whom believe that contract faculty should be offered full-time positions before more contract faculty are hired. This strategy would improve faculty working conditions and, in doing so, improve student learning conditions.

Levels of investment in faculty renewal should support enough full-time faculty hiring to deliver substantive improvements in province-wide student-faculty ratios. OCUFA estimates that an investment of $480 million over the next three years would support the creation of over 3,300 full-time tenure-stream positions, improve the student-faculty ratio by a modest margin, and bring Ontario substantially closer to matching the rest-of-Canada average.

This faculty renewal strategy must also help to ensure that retiring full-time tenured faculty members are replaced with new tenure-stream positions. Too often, when full-time faculty members retire, departments will turn to precariously employed contract faculty members to take over the teaching responsibilities, leaving the remaining full-time faculty members to pick up the slack on university service responsibilities. Again and again, we hear retiring professors express concern that the survival of their programs or departments will be jeopardized when they retire, and that the quality of their programs will decline without dedicated full-time faculty hired to replace them.

In sum, a robust faculty renewal strategy requires three pillars: hiring additional full-time faculty, replacing retiring full-time faculty, and supporting pathways for contract faculty into secure full-time positions.

With a provincial election on the horizon, supporting good academic jobs is a popular measure that candidates from all parties should be able to get behind. In fact, during the writing of this article, the Ontario NDP released their election platform in which they recognize the need to address precarious academic work and faculty renewal. Hopefully, the other political parties will take this opportunity to follow suit. Not only does the Ontario public overwhelmingly believe that universities should be model employers, but they understand that investing in better working conditions for faculty, including job security and benefits for contract professors, is an investment in education quality.

supporting good academic jobs is a popular measure that candidates from all parties should be able to get behind

For too long, Ontario’s faculty have struggled to figure out how to do more with less. Our students deserve better. Bolstered by much needed funding from the provincial government, faculty renewal would represent a vital investment in our campuses, our communities, and our students. AM

Gyllian Phillips is a Professor at Nipissing University and the President of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.