A Perspective from Canada—The Wage Gap that Plagues Non-Tenured Faculty is a Political Issue

by Gail Lethbridge

With Frosh Week drawing to close and Labour Day still fresh in our memory, it’s a good time to ask who is teaching our university students.

Many are full-time professors with good pay, health care benefits, vacations, job security pensions and tenure privileges such as sabbaticals.

And many are not.

About half of Canadian university students are being taught by contract workers with low pay, no benefits or vacations, no pensions, no job security, no tenure and no sabbaticals.

Officially, they are known as contract academic staff (CAS) but they also go by terms such as adjunct lecturers or sessional teachers. They have to reapply for their jobs each year and some have multiple contracts at different universities in order to make ends meet.

This is because their pay is significantly lower that that of their full-time peers. An average salary for a full-time tenured professor in Canada is somewhere north of $100,000. A sessional teacher with the same course load is looking at $30,000 for full-time work.

At many universities and colleges, a janitor would be paid more. Not that a janitor shouldn’t be paid more, but it is a useful comparison.

Increasingly, universities in Canada and the U.S. are relying on contract workers to teach students. Sometimes referred to as the “fast-food workers” of the university sector, many of these workers are feeling exploited by a system that is cranking up tuition for students, building beautiful glassy towers bearing the names of benefactors and paying presidents and senior administrators princely salaries.

Take the former president of Dalhousie University, for instance. Even in retirement, Tom Travers has been receiving a salary of $442,000 per year with his administrative leave clause. Current president Richard Florizone receives $390,052.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers and its Nova Scotia counterpart have expressed concern about a trend that has university teachers overworked, under-resourced and living on the borderline of poverty.

To be fair, not all sessional lecturers rely on university work to make a living. Some are lawyers, accountants and other professionals who are teaching a course to share on-the-job expertise. They have other income, but many do not.

Universities say they need to hire these workers due to pressures of government cutbacks. Universities have adopted a business model to attract the best “talent” at the top because they are competing with the private sector to find the best people so they have to fork out the big bucks.

The problem is that universities are not private-sector corporations. They are funded by taxpayers and students.

This is a problem for more than just the low-paid university teachers. Students who are paying those rising tuitions are being taught by people who don’t always have offices or office hours to spend with students outside the lecture halls. This affects the quality of the education. Would a parent sending a child to an expensive university want his or her child being taught by an contract worker on the poverty line?

But even more than that, this has long-term implications for a country that relies on excellent higher education to make its way in a global economy requiring knowledge, innovation and research. Encouraging a system in which teachers are allowed to live in poverty speaks to the value a country places on its post-secondary education.

It would seem that universities are responding to the gap in government funding by raising money in the private sector, thus the big bucks to the senior administrators who “know people” with money and who secure donations for new buildings.

This is fine, but the real value of a university is in its human capital, to use the cynical business terminology.

This hasn’t been raised thus far as a political issue in this election, but it ought to be. Education is key to the future of Canada.

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