I Teach University Physics, But I’m on Government Assistance

by Andrew Robinson

Recently, I had a perfectly reasonable request from a student who wanted to review an exam from last term. I was unable to comply with this request because to do so would be to give my employer more of my time for free. As a dedicated teacher, I am extremely sad about this, because I would like to give my students the very best learning experience that I possibly can.

So what makes a mild-mannered Physics instructor turn into a seething rebel? The blunt answer is that I, along with many of my colleagues in Higher Education in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia are being shamelessly exploited by our employers. We do not have permanent jobs, we have to eke out an existence by patching together many temporary contracts to try and earn enough to survive on. We go by many different names —  in Canada we are Contract Instructors or Sessional Lecturers. In the U.S., Adjunct Professors. We are highly qualified — I have a PhD — and often have experience outside academia. I have worked as a scientist or scientific programmer in the nuclear engineering industry and in the biosciences sector. This counts for little.


“I work for a pittance, and I cannot go on doing work for free. I am sorry that this directly affects students, but if the University wants a ‘Full Service’ teacher, then they need to pay us as a highly qualified professional person would expect to be paid.”

My total earning for the year are $34,000 (that’s Canadian dollars, which are less valuable that U.S. dollars). The average household income in Canada is $76,000. My family is officially classed as “poor” by Statistics Canada, and we get Provincial income assistance. For this paltry sum, I work all year round, with a break of a week over Christmas. By the time one course finishes, another has already started. I get no pension from my employer, although I have worked there for over four years. My job, although de facto full time, is not classified as such by the University. Officially, they maintain the extremely flimsy pretense that it is merely a temporary situation caused by unexpected events like extra enrollment or sabbatical leave by a permanent faculty member.

In reality, it is a permanent state of affairs, because the University cannot run all of the courses it offers without increasing the teaching load of the full time staff. It is also unwilling to increase the staff complement to add extra teaching staff. This is purely on cost grounds, as a full time instructor would cost two to three times as much in salary in benefits. Most Universities are quite shameless about doing this, but don’t like to advertise it. After all, their marketing depends on selling the idea that getting a degree, or preferably several advanced degrees, will lead to high paying jobs with good prospects. In fact, the University sector are the worst employers of all when it comes to employing highly qualified people at pitiful salary levels. But they really don’t want prospective students, or even worse prospective donors finding out about this.

The CBC, to its credit, has been trying to make the public aware of this.

And also with this marvellous radio broadcast “Class Struggle.”

So, when a student from a class of two hundred first year students emailed me and wanted to review a final exam, I was finally forced to reply like this:


“Unfortunately, I am unable to offer that service, as I do not have the time to review everybody’s exam with them (given that there are 200 students in the class).

I apologize for this, but I am only paid ($6,700) by the University for 225 hour of work to completely prepare, teach the Physics course material and mark everything. I actually already spend 280 hours on the course. Exam review with up to 200 students would put that to 300+ hours. If I had a full time, properly paid job, I would offer to review exams.

Please feel free to complain to the President, Head of Department or the Dean of Science about this. They are the ones obstructing my application for a permanent job, which has been going on since May. I have been informed that it is against “University, Faculty of Science and Departmental strategic plans” to hire contract instructors to full time positions.

Best wishes,

I had finally decided that “enough’s enough.” I work for a pittance, and I cannot go on doing work for free. I am sorry that this directly affects students, but if the University wants a “Full Service” teacher, then they need to pay us as a highly qualified professional person would expect to be paid. Note, if the student who sent the email reads this, it was not you that precipitated this. I had several requests from your classmates for the same service and I had to turn them down too. It’s just that today, I decided that it was time to make a public statement, so I copied my reply to the Head of Department and the Dean of Science. I have invited students to complain to them too, so that the message might strike home. Students pay a lot in tuition fees, which have risen much more steeply than the pay for contract instructors. They should expect a first class learning opportunity.

Now this stance is not without risks. My teaching contracts can be abolished by the Head of Department with the stroke of a pen. I could be out of job at the end of term for protesting about pay and conditions. And there is nothing anyone can do about it. I have NO employment protection, I will get no payout for years of service. Nothing. The University can rule their contract instructors by fear of job loss. There is no real protection, even though I am a union member. But someone has to stand up and say “This is not right.” So it might as well be me.

So you might be thinking “This is just some hack teacher, who doesn’t care at all about his students, just wants more money.” Well, actually no. I am an award winning teacher, with awards from 2012 and 2014 from the Faculty of Science. My student teaching evaluations are excellent, well above the normal for the department and the Faculty of Science. These scores are normally “confidential,” but I’m proud of my commitment to my students and I’m going to share the assessment from that class with you:


I score 4.65 out of a possible perfect 5.0. Not bad, eh? I do acknowledge that student evaluation is at best imperfect, and at worst could degenerate into a popularity contest, but this is the only teaching assessment done for contract instructors at my University. If you want some more comments about me, you can always look on Rate My Professors. Once again, this student rating site has many disadvantages and one student with an axe to grind can make a tremendous difference to the score, but I have a consistently good rating.

And you can also look at when I worked at the University of Saskatchewan (when I was younger and still rated chilli peppers on the hotness rating!).

So I believe that over a decade or so of teaching, I have demonstrated my ability to teach, and how I try to look after my students. It really is a very painful decision to have to deny some of them a chance to work on their Physics education, but unless I make a stand somewhere, then I will be trapped in this pit of poverty forever, completely taken for granted by my employer.

I have tried to have my job turned into a permanent one. The University has turned me down, and told me that giving me a permanent job is against “the strategic direction of the University, Faculty of Science and the Department.” The permanent faculty in the department will not support me because I am a teacher now, not an active scientific researcher. It is sad that they tolerate me teaching very large classes, so they don’t have to, as long as it only costs $34,000 per year. That’s what I’m worth to them, no more. So, enough is enough.

Let’s see if anything happens!

This originally appeared in Medium. It is used here with permission. 

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