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Sweatshop U

Part-time, precarious work becoming the norm at Canadian universities

by Kaley Kennedy

Sweatshop U

Laura Penny is an author of two full-length books. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature and has written for several magazines and newspapers, including the Globe and Mail. She is funny as hell, her students rate her high on course evaluations, and she has plenty of teaching experience.

She also can’t land a full-time university teaching position in Halifax.

Penny is one of tens of thousands of academics across the country working as contract faculty, also known as sessional or adjunct professors or part-time instructors. The university does not employ Penny and her cohorts full-time. Instead, they are contracted to teach individual courses that cannot be covered by existing tenured faculty. Unlike full-time professors, contract faculty members are not paid for doing research, or participating in the university community.

Increasingly, full-time, tenure-track positions are being replaced by contract faculty as a way to save money, says Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers – the national union representing most of the faculty at Canadian universities. Contract faculty are paid less, often receive little to no benefits, and have little job security, making it a “sweet deal” for administrators, he says.

According to Statistics Canada, over 74,000 people, or about 56 per cent of working university professors worked part-time in 2005. Between 1999 and 2005 the percentage of university professors working on a non-permanent basis doubled to over 30 per cent. There is currently no usable data available on how much of actual teaching is done by part-time or non-permanent faculty. This also does not account for contract faculty who may be teaching full-time, but who are paid significantly less than their tenure-track colleagues

According to Turk, until the early 1990s, Statistics Canada did a part-time faculty survey, similar to their full-time faculty survey, but universities said it was too difficult to collect the data, resulting in a vacuum of usable data on the extent to which the use of contract faculty is on the rise.

According to a study published by the American Federation of Teachers, in 2003 to 2004, only 41 per cent of undergraduate classes at American universities were taught by full-time, tenure-track faculty. The remainder were taught by graduate students working as instructors, part-time or adjunct faculty, and full-time contract faculty.

“Anecdotally, Canada is going the same way [as the U.S.],” says Turk. “But the plural of anecdote isn’t data.”

Sweatshop U

Last year, Penny taught a total of six courses at three separate universities – Mount Saint Vincent University, Saint Mary’s University, and the University of King’s College. All for an annual salary of $24,000 – just $5,000 above the poverty line.

“The pay is appalling, which is why university administrators find contract faculty appealing,” says Turk. “They can get 15 courses taught by contract faculty for the price of five courses taught by full-time faculty.”

Full-time faculty members in Canada teach two to three courses per semester, depending on the terms of the university’s collective agreement with the faculty association. At Dalhousie, an assistant professor is expected to teach two courses per term. The salary for an assistant professor at Dal in 2008/2009 was $57,339. According to the collective agreement of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3912 (CUPE 3912) – who represents part-time faculty – a part-time contract faculty member who did the same amount of teaching in 2008/2009 would receive between $17,050 and $20,850, depending on how long they had been teaching.

This summer CUPE 3912 was finally able to negotiate a new contract, after a year without a contract. Wages were a key issues, since the university had initially offered no increases.

“When negotiations come up, both sides will have certain expectations. This time around, the universities said they were not in a place to give any pay increases,” said Christina Behme, a vice-president of CUPE 3912.

The university cited the poor performance of the pension fund for the difficult financial situation, but Behme notes part-time faculty don’t draw from the fund.

While the details of the final agreement cannot be released because the agreement hasn’t been signed, Behme says the agreement includes only “modest pay increases.”

Part-time workers, full-time work

While contract faculty members are viewed as part-time employees because they are only employed at an institution on a part-time basis, they often teach as much or more than their full-time colleagues. Contract faculty members are also more likely to commute between several campuses in order to get enough work.

Ideally, part-time faculty would only work at Dal, but Behme says that many of the part-time faculty members work at other universities in order to make a living.

The current situation for part-time professors, adds Penny, is a lose-lose situation for professors and students because while part-time faculty often teach full-time, they don’t have access to the same resources as full-time faculty such as printing and office space.

Last year, for example, part-time faculty working at Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU) requested one computer for the 11 staff members who use a part-time faculty office. The university initially denied the request, which meant faculty had to continue to do printing and computer work in a separate office – the Faculty Resource Centre – used by a much larger group of staff. When MSVU finally agreed, it was discovered the university had simply moved a computer from the centre to the part-time faculty office.

At Dalhousie, office space and administrative resources vary from department to department, says Behme, who has been working at Dal for six years.

Many part-time faculty members are assigned offices outside of the department they are teaching in, making it difficult to engage with colleagues, and making meeting with students and accessing available department resources more difficult.

According to Charles Crosby, Media Relations Manager at Dal, there is no blanket policy on the hiring of part-time faculty at the university. Instead, the deans of each faculty are responsible for the use of part-time instructors. 

“The vast majority of busy students don’t know the difference in the resources available to their professors,” says Penny.

While many universities present teaching as their priority, she adds, they rely on part-time instructors who have little administrative support.

“What university is going to brag about how little they pay for teaching and how little they care about 1000-level courses?”

This fall, Penny will not be teaching any classes because instead of applying for any classes she could, she waited to apply for courses that were closest to her field of study. In the past, Penny has taught classes that fall outside her expertise because it was what was available.

Concerns about job security remain the main issue for part-time contract faculty, says Behme. Though CUPE 3912 maintains a seniority list that means that the longer you teach, the better chance you have of getting work, it is still not a guarantee of work.

“Once you’re on that list, especially if you are the top, you have a reasonable chance of getting a job if jobs are available. But you have to get there in the first place,” she says.

Two castes of faculty

Moving from working as a sessional instructor to a full-time, tenure-track position can also be difficult.
“Most contract staff are very serious, dedicated teachers who do the best they can with the limited resources they have at a threat to their health, and to scholarship in their field,” says Turk. “Most contract faculty would like a full-time job, are qualified for a full-time job, but are denied full-time jobs.”

At Dal, contract faculty are guaranteed access to a library card, a mailbox, and have access to up to $300 per academic year to help cover the costs of presenting at a conference or going to a professional development event, but get no paid sabbaticals, research facilities, remuneration for research work, or time to keep up with the developments in their field of work.

Full-time, tenure-track professors are expected to fill three components of their job: teaching, research, and service. Since contract faculty members are only paid for teaching, they have to complete research and service in the community on their own time and money.

After three or four years of teaching – even if a full-time, permanent position does open up – contract faculty who have been struggling to make a living still have to have published work to show in order to be competitive in the job market, says Turk.

According to Behme, Dalhousie is not interested in supporting part-time faculty who publish. In the most recent round of contract negotiations between Dalhousie and CUPE 3912, the university said that it was not viable for part-time faculty to claim they are affiliated with Dalhousie when seeking publication.

“As far as Dalhousie is concerned, part-timers are teachers, and they are not interested in helping them facilitate their careers,” says Behme.

Both Turk and Penny note that the implications of these working conditions are a reduction in the quality of education students receive. When professors don’t have office space or don’t get paid for the time they meet with students, and have to balance a large amount of students at several institutions, and teach outside their expertise, their ability to do their job is compromised.


The Canadian Association of University Teachers, which has an on-going campaign for fair working conditions for contract faculty, proposes that universities move to a “pro-rata” model. Under this type of model, contract faculty who are hired part-time would be treated equivalently to their tenured, full-time colleagues. If a contract faculty member was hired to teach 50 per cent of a regular course load, they would also be expected, and paid to do equivalent work in the areas of research and service. Their pay would also be pro-rated based on the percentage of a full-time load they were contracted for.

This model, says Turk, would not only improve conditions for workers but also take away the financial incentive for universities to exploit contract workers.

“There has to be a mechanism so that you don’t ghettoize contract faculty,” he says.

Kaley Kennedy is a feminist activist living in Halifax. This article first appeared in the Dal Gazette.

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1662 words



The hyper privilege it takes to get yourself a PhD may just leave one over qualified.  Certainly $25,000 does not sound comparable to a the income of a sweatshop worker on a factory floor.   All parties have bought into a sub-government in a post-secondary setting which is all together un-democratic and based upon building class divisions.  

  I'm quite surprised that there was no mention of the support workers at such institutions  who are quite abused and paid as low as possible under contracts with the likes of the Sodexo food corporation.   

The teaching load for

The teaching load for tenure-track professors at Dalhousie varies from department to department, sometimes quite significantly.  This will affect your calculations.

Agree with comment above

Agree with comment above about support staff like Sodexo.. compared to MA students, cleaning staff, cafeteria staff, contract faculty aren't doing so bad. But, the other side of the coin, comparing them to tenure-track, it's pretty ludicrous. I've taken a couple of Penny's classes..they're always full, they're always full of great philosophical and critical discussion, and students love how knowledgeable she is and how she delivers it with a sharp wit. And then you get the old geezers who are less than 10 years from retirement, whose syllabus hasn't changed since 1978...(I actually have a seminar this year where the syllabus reads "X and Y: 4655-- 2010...and then further down the dates are 2005, so clearly the prof just plugged in new values for this year, and changed virtually nothing else)...they use the same textbooks as they did the first time they taught it, and give the attitude where they don't care at all about anything but their research. I see no point in filling out course and instructor evaluations at the end of a class, because I see professors getting only bad reviews year after year, yet they're still employed, still dull, and have made no observable effort at improving their pedagogical skill set. The best thing to do is just seek those folk out, and never take anything from them... if they're teaching a required class, wait a year or two,  you might luck out as they go on sabbatical and get replaced by one of the cool contract faculty. 


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