Trend towards casual academic positions harming education

Photo for illustrative purposes only. By Jenny Fisher.
Photo for illustrative purposes only. By Jenny Fisher.

Part-time precarious positions have negative impacts for students, teachers and for education in general. At Trent, the casualization of the academic labour force has been incrementing in the last few years, as a part of the general trend of flexibilization under neoliberalism.

Dr. Jacqueline Solway, a Trent professor and member of the International Development and the Anthropology departments, expressed that “the casualization of teaching positions at Trent is part of a wider casualization of the labour force in the post-Fordist society.” She argues that it is taking place in every sector and not only in academia.

Dr. Solway agreed that tenure positions are the most secure jobs and that the casualization is pernicious as it produces more exploitative labour relations. Part-time staff are paid very low wages, do not have job security, and are alienated as they feel a sense of not belonging.

There is a key distinction to make in terms of part-time teaching positions. On the one hand, there are part-time faculty staff hired per course, which are members of CUPE. On the other hand, there are limited term appointments (LTA). LTA contracts are generally nine months and have a lower wage, lower benefits, and usually a higher teaching load.

LTA’s have a fundamental contradiction, Dr. Solway argued, since they are members of TUFA they are expected to conduct research, but are not well supported as a result of having temporary contracts.

Baris Karaagac, a Trent professor also in the International Development Studies program, argued that there is no guarantee of tenure when engaging in contractual part-time work. He expressed that there is a trend in making these types of employment even more precarious in the name of budget balancing and cost cutting.

Mr. Karaagac stated that the biggest challenge of LTA positions is job security, since every year the contract must be renewed. Furthermore, he argued that not knowing if you are teaching next year undermines highly valuable educational continuity and institutional time.

In terms of the effect on the student experience, both CUPE and LTA staff have enormous challenges to establish continuous relationships with students. Dr. Solway asserts that on the one hand, a person teaching a course for the first time could bring excitement and energy to the classroom, but on the other hand there will not be continuity.

Mr. Karaagac articulated that continuity is extremely important. He is on his third LTA and the three years have allowed him to develop long-term ties with students, which have a very positive effect on the student-professor relationship.

“Continuity allows students to take more from professors and vice-versa, but precarious forms of employment in academia have made it very difficult to develop such relationships”, he added.

Dr. Solway also expressed sadness about the fact that many students will go through their university experience having very few courses taught by permanent faculty, which diminishes continuity and stops students from getting to know their professors.

Mr. Karaagac also said that prior to being on a LTA, he was a member of CUPE. He commented that those types of employment makes you see yourself as disposable since as soon as the contract ends you have nothing to do with the organization, institution or program. He argued that CUPE members do everything they can and put a lot of time and effort in teaching, but this usually goes unrecognized.

Moreover, Dr. Solway agreed that it is also hard to keep part time staff accountable, since hiring takes place with not much knowledge of a person’s ability to deliver a course, and therefore it is risky for departments and for students as well. In addition, it is problematic since the casualization of the academic labour force often generates tension as part-time staff is hired to teach core courses, which can lead to inconsistencies.

On a side note, there has been a decreasing number of faculty staff hired compared to that of administration staff. It has been argued that there has been a proliferation of administrative tasks such as reports and forms, which demands more staff. However, the proportion of university budget to pay administrators has grown at the expense of the proportion that is used to pay the teaching faculty.

In terms of how administrative employment has increased, Mr. Karaagac argued that there has been a process of bureaucratization, and a trend towards putting managers in charge of universities instead of academics. Many of these administrators are paid significant salaries, while contract faculty are rewarded extremely low salaries.

The crumbling of the ivory towers caused by their casualization raises a number of serious political questions: What type of education do we want? Should education be a commodity? Should educational institutions be run as any other corporation?