Complex issues for contract staff

Administration, professional weigh in on reasons for universities’ heavy reliance on sessionals

Graphic by Joshua Awolade
Graphic by Joshua Awolade

Lack of job security, fair wages and access to benefits are just some of the issues contract faculty across Ontario face.

WeTeachOntario, a campaign recently launched by the Ontario Federation of University Faculty Associations, is bringing these and other challenges to the forefront.

However, there might be more to this campaign than simply “fighting for better academic jobs.”

“I think what I find kind of stunning about OCUFA’s campaign is that there is no acknowledgment of the very large increases in salaries of fulltime academics,” said Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates.

He explained these salaries have been rising at a rate three times inflation since around 2000. Another part of this issue, Usher continued, is there is no more mandatory retirement. This means more professors who are at the top of the salary scale are able to work at the university for longer.

To try and balance things out, instead of replacing professors who do retire, the university might hire one or two contract staff, also known as sessionals.

In terms of whether Wilfrid Laurier University’s reliance on contract academic staff will increase, vice-president of academic and provost Deborah MacLatchy said it’s difficult to know.

“It’s a complicated question to ask and to answer on the whole university,” she said.

“Partly because in some cases you’re hiring a mix of areas in which you want to continue to build research strengths as well as the undergraduate teaching and grad program development. And all those pieces, it’s all part of the decision-making matrix.”

But Usher said the reliance on sessionals has to do with the amount of classes full-time faculty are teaching.

“The other thing that OCUFA doesn’t, I don’t think, deal with is that one of the reasons we have sessionals is because professors buy themselves out of classes,” Usher said.

“They get research leave, or if you go back five or 10 years, they were reducing their teaching load in terms of the number of students they were teaching.”

This created a need for contract staff to fill in these teaching gaps.

So while universities have been putting more and more money into teaching and research, this has gone towards the wage build for full-time staff and sessionals have been used to keep costs down.

Usher said a choice was made to put more money into full-time professors’ salaries rather than using the money to hire more professors and that this choice was driven by faculty unions and associations.

“Let’s put it this way … it’s within OCUFA’s power to solve the sessional problem in many ways by moderating its own member’s demands for higher salaries and less teaching.”

Usher also explained although there are ways to eliminate the universities’ reliance on sessionals, these solutions are not necessarily beneficial to the sessionals themselves.

One way is to turn them into full-time faculty. However they might not be the first in line to get hired on as full-time.

The second way is to have full-time staff start teaching more again.

“It’s not good news for sessionals,” he said. “It means there would be fewer courses for them.”

What sessionals are really asking for, he said, is to have their current positions be imbedded more deeply in the universities.

MacLatchy explained Ontario universities get the lowest funding per student from the government and tuition is highly controlled, which limits the institutions’ abilities to meet the needs and wants of its employees. But many CAS at Laurier have voiced a need to join together as a university and demand the provincial government provide the university with more funding.

“Certainly the university administration is constantly advocating with the government about Laurier’s needs and about the university sector’s needs,” MacLatchy said. “It’s a challenge right now for that because the provincial budget in Ontario is under pressure. We’re on a demographic dip right now with 18-25 year olds.”

She continued that this has called into question the role of universities in society.

“But I agree with the sentiment that collectively working with the faculty unions and talking about the value of universities and the importance of universities to society is critical.”

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