Invisible professors

Canadian universities are experiencing rapid growth in the number of contract professors teaching undergraduate classes, a pattern that may have damaging effects on academia

If we were to describe a group on campus whose job and financial security changes month to month, whose members don’t know if they’ll have a job from semester to semester, who don’t know if they can afford to pay their bills or rent, and who are often forced to work 60-hour weeks to make ends meet, you’d probably assume we’re talking about students.

Yet these conditions are often a reality for the approximately 1,000 part-time professors who work at the University of Ottawa each given semester.

And, if you are an undergraduate student, there’s just shy of a 50 per cent chance that one of these professors teaches one of your courses.

This increasing number of overworked and under resourced professors may have serious implications in terms of the value students are getting for their education.

Contract faculty do not have access to the same amount of resources as full-time professors, are limited in their engagement with the community, and are often forced to commute from university to university to make a living.

For many students these are the first teachers they will have in university. They are the people responsible for marking the essays and exams of hundreds of students, planning lectures, writing reference letters, and developing the perspective and critical thinking of thousands of tuition-paying undergraduates.

Out of office

Have you ever gone to consult a professor during office hours and noticed that some occupy rooms filled with personal effects and stacks of books, while others greet you in undecorated, closet-like rooms shared by other professors? Maybe you’ve met a professor at a coffee shop, or the lobby of a building, because you couldn’t make it during office hours and that’s where they suggested you meet instead.

If this has been the case, it’s probably because they weren’t a full-time professor, but a member of our university’s part-time contract teaching staff.

Full-time professors generally allocate 40 per cent of their work time to teaching, 40 per cent to research, and 20 per cent to a variety of administrative tasks. They also have offices to themselves, which make it easy for students to stop by to clarify concepts, discuss upcoming assignments, or develop academic relationships that could potentially play a major role in future graduate studies.

These professors usually make more than $100,000 a year, and either have guaranteed tenure, or are tenure-tracked, meaning they’re in line to achieve tenure eventually, assuming they continue to work hard and frequently publish.

Part-time contract professors on the other hand, are paid only to teach, with no job security beyond their semester-long contracts. At the U of O, these professors make between $6,500 and $8,500 per course, with a limit of seven courses in a given year.

Currently about 40 to 50 per cent of all undergraduate courses at the U of O are taught by contract professors. It’s a number that has grown in recent years, a reflection of a broader trend across the province and country.

According to data from the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA), the number of contract professors employed in provincial universities has risen dramatically in the past 15 years. Back in 2000, 20,000 courses were taught by contract faculty. Today, that number has risen to 43,500—an 87 per cent increase versus a 33 per cent increase during that time in courses taught by full-time faculty.

Across Canada, full-time positions increased by 19 per cent between 1987 and 2006—a third of the 56 per cent increase in full-time student enrolment.

In his documentary Exploitation in the Ivory Tower, Ira Basen, a sessional instructor at three Canadian universities and a documentary producer for the CBC, said the reason for this is the new corporate model of universities.

Universities have increasingly been forced to run like businesses as public funding for post-secondary institutions has diminished. Students have been feeling this financial crunch in the consistent inflation of tuition fees, the simplest way for a university to raise revenues.

And to lower costs, most universities are attempting to make the learning experience more efficient, such as by offering more online and hybrid courses to teach a greater number of students at lower per-class costs.

They’ve also tried to cut back on faculty costs. Temporary contract professors are much cheaper to employ than full-time professors. As Basen pointed out in his documentary, figures provided by the Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association show that the Waterloo school spends less than four per cent of its budget on contract professors—who teach more than 50 per cent of its undergraduates.

Convenience or necessity?

The University of Ottawa’s hiring of part-time contract professors over full-time faculty nearly resulted in a strike during the summer of 2013. On July 31, members of the Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa (APUO) won the first-ever strike mandate in the union’s 57-year history. The strike was avoided after the university agreed to hire 60 more full-time professors and not lower pensions.

While it may be less costly for the universities to hire more part-time professors, it has also meant the creation of an academic underclass.

Édith-Anne Pageot, a PhD and visual arts professor at the U of O, has been working as a part-time professor for 12 years and relies on teaching as her primary source of income. She believes that contract positions at Canadian universities defy the very premise of academia.

“Most of my part-time colleagues in the humanities hold a PhD,” she said. “In fact, the requirement to be hired as a part-time professor in a number of disciplines is to hold a PhD and demonstrate an active research and publication dossier. It is unacceptable that a system has been put in place that naturalizes professional inequities and exploitation.”

But according to Jules Carrière, the university’s acting associate vice-president of faculty affairs, Pageot isn’t an accurate representation of the typical part-time professor at the university.

“Most part-time professors do not have a PhD,” said Carrière.“The typical profile is someone who has a full-time job somewhere else and is teaching at the university part-time, not in order to make ends meet, but because they enjoy teaching and they like doing it.”

Robert Johnson, president of the Association of Part-Time Professors at the University of Ottawa (APTPUO), argues Pageot’s experience does in fact represent the majority of contract professors at the university, as the profile Carrière mentioned applies mainly to professional faculties.

“In many, many departments, and certainly in the faculties of arts and social sciences, where probably the bulk of the teaching is being done, these are people for whom this is a full-time gig,” he said.

Johnson said so many professors rely on part-time contracts for full-time work because they’ve spent 12 years studying to earn a PhD, hoping to become a tenured member of the academic community—but the positions just aren’t open.

“They simply can’t find a tenure-track position because there are fewer and fewer of them out there,” he said.

A 2013 survey conducted by the APTPUO revealed that the majority of its members would apply to a tenure-track position should it open up.

Diminished quality of life

All of this may seem like a battle between administrators and academics over job titles, but a lack of full-time status has significant effects on the quality of life for contract workers.

Basen’s documentary revealed the stories of part-time professors across Canada who can’t afford to provide for their families, and struggle to stay above the poverty line. Carrière and Milliard insisted this portrayal doesn’t ring true among contract faculty at the U of O, but Johnson said he has seen first-hand the same type of issues among APTPUO’s members.

“They don’t know if they will be able to pay their rent,” he said. “And if they’re trying to get a mortgage, no bank will give them one because they don’t have steady income.”

Some members of the APTPUO travel daily between universities in Ottawa, Quebec, and Kingston because it’s the only way to find enough part-time work to make a living.

Part-time professors also don’t receive the same insurance coverage offered to full-time professors and other groups on campus. According to Johnson, APTPUO’s members don’t receive dental coverage, accidental death insurance, or disability benefits. Their children also have to pay full tuition, versus the discounted tuition rates offered to children of full-time faculty.

Effects on the educational experience

But despite all the long hours, travelling, lack of benefits, and uncertainty that part-time professors face, they’ve been able to perform consistently well. End-of-term student surveys gathered by the U of O reveal strikingly similar levels of student satisfaction between part-time and full-time professors. On average, student satisfaction with part-time professors measured 4.2 out of 5, while satisfaction with full-time professors averaged 4.3.

While these results suggest that part-time professors aren’t letting employment conditions interfere with their quality of teaching, there may be costs to students that are more difficult to measure, according to Basen. His documentary points to several studies that have shown that students perform better academically, and cope better with university life, with the more formal and informal face time they can get from their professors. Such face time becomes difficult when part-time professors are only given access to a shared office during set hours each week, or spend their afternoons commuting from university to university.

Carrière argues that constant email access makes personal interactions possible regardless of where professors are during the day. But Johnson agrees with Basen that part of the educational experience is lost.

“There are cases where our members are being called one week, or even two days, before the start of classes in order to prepare for a course, set up the syllabus and start the teaching,” he said. “There’s an impact on the quality of education to the degree that the university doesn’t provide adequate working conditions for part-time professors.”

Conditions for contract faculty across the country have improved recently as some unions have been able to negotiate higher wages, increased benefits, and more secure contract lengths.

Some schools, including McMaster and the University of Waterloo, have created full-time, teaching-only positions to reduce their reliance on contract professors.

During the most recent set of labour negotiations between the APTPUO and the U of O, the two sides agreed upon three-year extended contract positions to part-time professors who teach seven courses per year, and who have demonstrated a commitment to the university and excellence in teaching.

While both the university administration and professors are hopeful that these longer contracts will be able to provide some job security, Johnson said they don’t address the fundamental inequalities of contract work.

“It’s not job security in the way that other academic staff at the university have job security,” he said. “They have tenure, they are permanent, and their positions involve teaching, research, and service.”

With no set limit for the growth rate of part-time professors established in the APTPUO’s new collective bargaining agreement, and only a five per cent increase for full-time faculty guaranteed in the APUO’s new agreement, students and faculty can expect the issue to linger among classrooms at the U of O—as it almost surely will across Canada—for the foreseeable future.