Contract faculty work in Ontario is unfair, ineffective, and ready for a shakeup.

I am a relative newcomer to contract instructing, having moved to Ontario from Saskatchewan in 2010, for family reasons related to health care for my younger son, who is a special-needs child. We moved from Saskatchewan because we were unable to get the health care we needed for him. My wife and I had a unique position at the University of Saskatchewan. We had a job share; she was on the tenure-track in Physics, and I was the teaching sidekick. This suited me, as I came late to university level teaching, working first as a research scientist in universities and then as a scientific computer programmer in the private sector. I did not have the conventional career trajectory of an academic employed in a tenured position at a university. We moved to Ontario without having jobs to move into, but I was fortunate to be able to find work immediately at Carleton University as a laboratory supervisor. I was then offered contract instructor positions, and moved to teaching five one-semester Introductory Physics courses during the course of the year. To put this in perspective, this is the teaching load expected of a full-time Instructor/Lecturer position, as defined in the Carleton faculty collective agreement. It would be extremely difficult to teach more than two of these courses in parallel—the workload would then be 50-60 hours per week. With my special-needs childcare commitments, this would be impossible. Nor would it be possible for me to take on a tenure-track position. The hours of work typically required to develop, fund, and launch a research program were more than I could actually devote to it. My ambition is more modest: to obtain a full-time instructor position and be able to develop better pedagogy for the teaching of physics at the university level.

So what do I find, as a contract instructor in an Ontario University? The stipends vary enormously, from the low end (Carleton) to the high end (York). Contract instructors at Carleton’s neighbour, the University of Ottawa, have a considerably better funding package and superior benefits. Yet the work is essentially the same, and each university receives a regulated amount of funding from the province, with the rest made up from tuition fees (also regulated) and donations. Given this relatively level financial playing field, the huge disparities in contract faculty pay between the different universities surprised me a lot. I originally hail from the UK, where there are unified national scales negotiated for the various faculty pay grades. Faculty pay in Ontario is highly local, with each institution negotiating directly with its employees. This localization of negotiations heavily favours employers, as it is more difficult for the various disparate labour groups to lobby effectively at much more than the local level. I also note that there are two distinct philosophies of how to position the contract instructors within existing union structures. Around half of contract instructors in Ontario are unionized with the full-time faculty at their university. The other half are often unionized with CUPE and often in bargaining units which also include teaching assistants, research assistants, and other groups of students who are also employed by the university. My personal reflection on this is that having a combined faculty/contract instructor negotiating unit is vastly preferable, as it cuts out a lot of management divide-and-rule tactics, which we at Carleton experience regularly. Many of our proposals for reform are instantly blocked by management using the argument that “that would contravene our agreement with the faculty”.

Virtually all Canadian universities claim to be “research intensive” and are fixed on the ideal model of the professor as both brilliant researcher and brilliant teacher. The snag with this hypothesis is that there is no evidence which suggests a link between performance as a researcher and performance as a teacher. Thus to correctly balance the twin objectives of the university, employing both teaching and research specialists would make more sense. The University of Toronto, for instance—easily described as the leading research institution in the province and in Canada (although UBC and the University of Alberta would no doubt dispute this national title)—does have “teaching stream” faculty. Employing full-time teachers apparently does nothing to deplete U of T’s research prowess. Ironically, most of the opposition to creating dedicated teaching positions comes from tenured faculty. Recalcitrant professors make comments about the “balkanisation of the profession” that will occur if both research and tenure streams are allowed to exist separately. This ignores the reality of what has actually happened over the last twenty years: we don’t have a balkanisation of the profession, we have segregation, or one might almost say, apartheid. On one side we have tenure-track faculty who both research and teach. On the other, the contract instructors, who teach much more, but are not paid to do any research. In some academic disciplines, research on your own time and at your own expense is possible. In the sciences, experimental science is an expensive thing to pursue, and no funding body will commit funds to precarious workers. There is also an enormous disparity in the level of pay of the two groups. The tenured staff are now mostly on the Ontario Sunshine List of those earning more than $100,000 per year. The teaching staff will be lucky to earn $25,000-$35,000 at most universities (York being the most notable exception). Moreover, tenure-track faculty normally enjoy generous benefits, pensions, and strong job security. Contract teaching staff not only do not have stable employment, they also have vastly inferior benefits— if any.

Another striking thing about the universities in Ontario is their almost complete adherence to identical doctrines of management, funding, and interpretation of their core missions. They are not exactly shining examples of debate on, academic discussion about, or experimentation with new models in teaching or finance. The dreary uniformity of the same policy positions is quite astounding. The accepted wisdom among university administrators is that there is a perpetual financial crisis caused by provincial underfunding of education. It is true that the Government of Ontario funds students less than all other provinces on a per-student basis. However the universities have simply shifted their revenue source from government to students in the form of higher tuition fees.1 Many universities have regularly reported financial surpluses (at non-profit organizations, surpluses are akin to profits, with the exception that they must be reinvested in the organization). A financial crisis does not really exist for the universities; the real financial crisis is the cost of education borne by students, and the debt levels they must incur to pay for their studies. Nevertheless, the narrative of institutions in financial crisis appears at every single contract negotiation. It is also notable that while faculty and administrative salaries have been rising at well above the rate of inflation, the contract instructor salaries have been struggling to even keep pace. The “dreary uniformity” of financial discussions at Ontario universities is especially frustrating when we see the administration, faculty, and students at Cape Breton University come together and propose that tuition fees should be abolished. This kind of out-of-the-box thinking is a rarity in our universities.

I also observe that there is an extremely rigid caste system in place in university culture. There are completely separate castes of administrators, permanent faculty, and contract instructors, and the latter group is most definitely the lowest in the pecking order. I personally find it extremely uncomfortable working with many tenured faculty, who although are civil and polite on a fairly superficial level, will, if pressed, always support their own tribe and not look out for the interests of a colleague who happens to be a contract instructor. The fact that we have a significant overlap of duties in teaching, but a massive disparity in terms of status, permanence, and salary does not help. It is sad that departments have no incentive to create permanent instructor positions to carry out teaching. In fact, every incentive at the department level is to maximize the number of research faculty. Departments gain resources by maximizing research output, not by delivering a better educational experience for their students. This makes for an uncomfortable and tense working environment for the contract instructor. In all fairness, many of the tenured faculty probably don’t realize that this is the case, but nevertheless the system as now constituted places a great deal of stress on contract instructors who are de facto full-time employees.

One of my big concerns is that, assuming there is some reform in the future and new permanent positions are opened up, the full-time faculty will insist on having the final say on who is selected, rather than offering these positions to long-serving contract instructors. It is all too easy to imagine this happening, given the apparent fondness of universities to hire from outside their own halls. This type of thinking is very common amongst faculty, and will always be justified by an argument that “it’s for the good of the department,” absolving the decision makers from any responsibility to the excluded persons. Robust negotiations and agreements with—and within—faculty associations will be needed to ensure that this is not the case.

The original purpose of contract instructor positions, intended for graduate students who needed teaching experience, subject experts employed elsewhere, and emergency replacements of faculty due to unforeseen circumstances, has been subverted. Contracts are now being given for essential core courses. It’s fairly obvious that these will not be taught by people such as lawyers, architects, and public servants, who will be at work in their “real” jobs. So this teaching will inevitably be done by faculty or professional university instructors. The fact that the university can simultaneously abuse the contract instructor system to deliver its core mission and claim with a straight face that “nobody should try and piece together a living from these contracts” defies belief. Nevertheless, this is what we have to deal with. We are essential to the running of the institution and provide core services, yet we are paid a fraction of what tenured faculty and permanent instructors receive and the employer sees us an easily replaceable interchangeable part to slot into a class schedule where necessary. It is telling that universities are coy about the number of contract teaching staff they employ, and how many courses are taught by contract, rather than permanent, staff. There is really no excuse for not having these figures available, except that no sustained government or public pressure has been placed on institutions to release these data. These figures should be made available, so that students can make informed choices about where to pursue their studies based on the general level of institutional support for undergraduate teaching. This would be very beneficial for both students and contract instructors (and probably rather embarrassing for most university administrations).

So how does this situation impact teaching in Ontario universities? Students do not benefit from large classes, taught by harried and stressed temporary faculty. They may lose contact with instructors who know them well, but are then forced to leave the institution. This denies many students access to good academic references. In some cases, sufficient meeting times, or even meeting spaces, are often not available to meet student needs. I am fortunate to have a shared office, whereas many have no dedicated office space at all. Face-to-face meetings with students are an exceptionally important part of the education process, and the responsibility to provide adequate resources to facilitate direct contact rests squarely with the university administration.

How long this system will remain in place is questionable. The universities have absolutely no incentive to reform themselves. The provincial government, reluctant to hand over more money as operating grants, has also adopted an extremely hands off approach to the general operation of the universities. I have received an official statement from my own Member of the Provincial Parliament, saying that “the universities act as autonomous institutions, and the provincial parliament does not interfere with their labour or hiring policies.” This is all well and good, and nobody would want external political control of individual appointments in the university system. But surely, guidelines or even legislation to force equitable employment practices should carry some weight? After all, the government is one of the major stakeholders and is the largest contributor to the university coffers; it has the influence to be an activist “shareholder.” The other major stakeholders are the students and their parents. This is where I think the pressure for reform will come. They have been paying ever increasing tuition fees, and have not realised until now that an estimated 33 to 50 per cent of the courses are not being taught by scholars in permanent jobs, but by temporary, precarious workers, employed on much less favourable terms. Class sizes have increased, course options have decreased, and so it is very difficult to argue that the quality of undergraduate teaching during the twenty-first century has maintained standards, let alone improved. At some point, students will start to dig in their collective heels and demand more resources be put into actual undergraduate teaching, rather than research which completely dominates the agenda in the Ontario university system. We can see the beginnings of this in the recent strikes by teaching assistants at York and the University of Toronto. In both cases, the university made frankly ridiculous offers, and were forced to climb down because of action not only of the strikers, but also a significant number of undergraduates who quite clearly realize that their education is being compromised. I suspect that this will embolden union negotiation teams elsewhere in the province.

To sum up, I am encouraged by the recent signs of activism bringing concrete results into the working conditions and remuneration of precariously employed university employees. However, I am dismayed by the rigid orthodoxy of university management, and the lack of emphasis put on one of the core missions of the Ontario universities—to provide a high quality, affordable undergraduate education. A shakeup is needed, and it may have to be a grass-roots movement, given the inertia of both university administrations and provincial governments. The time for committed activism is upon us. AM

Andrew Robinson teaches physics at Carleton University.

Editor’s Note: Even when net tuition fees (fees minus scholarships and bursaries paid from operating funds) are included, Ontario still is eighth out of ten provinces in terms of operating revenue 
per student.