University part-timers a full-time problem

By Michael Lashley

Michael Lashley
Michael Lashley

The challenges faced by Canadian universities as employers of part-time teaching staff are not simply a financial issue. At the very least, they are an industrial relations issue.

It is my contention that they also constitute an ethical issue because the terms of trade in this relationship between the employers and the employees are morally untenable.

There is a reason for the existence of public policy as a field of study and of professional activity and there is a reason why a wide variety of persons and institutions have a responsibility to look into the existence of unresolved issues which negatively affect the public good, the “res publica“.

It is strategically useful to focus more on the responsibility to resolve the issues, rather than to yield to the temptation to attribute blame. Once we agree that there are genuine challenges, we can choose to exercise the healthy, non-confrontational option of seeking to marry the financial, human resource and public policy factors involved in the situation.

While it may be possible to argue over the details, the main facts are indisputable and have not been denied by any of the parties. Here is a summary of those facts:

More than 50 % of undergraduate students are taught by part-time staff; but only 4 % of universities’ budget goes to teaching that 50% of their students.

Large numbers of the part-time teaching staff depend mainly on this activity as their main or only source of income and have both the post-graduate degrees and the teaching experience required for full-time positions.

Part-timers are known to teach courses for up to 16 years without ever securing any of the full-time appointments that become available from-time-to-time.

The course load for full-time teaching staff members is generally four courses per year and their annual salary is about $80,000 – $150,000. For the same work load, the part-time staff members are paid about $28,000, or one third of their tenured colleagues.

Universities find it easier to cater for the approximately 20% increase in their student enrolment over a 10-year period by hiring several part-timers for the cost of one full-timer and assigning them to teach the consequently larger classes of hundreds of students.

The percentage of universities’ operational costs that is funded by governments has decreased over the years and a significantly larger percentage of those costs is met from tuition and other fees paid by students.

The entitlements of part-time staff are generally limited to their “modest” wages; regardless of the number of years they have served in short-term, repeatedly renewed contract “employment”, they do not enjoy such standard benefits as pension, health care, vacation, funding for travel and research and sabbaticals.

Students who pay their university fees are entitled to reasonable and regular access to the persons who teach their courses; this is neither practical if those persons are essentially off-campus, nor fair to the under-paid part-time teachers who are not compensated for this “additional” service.

And yet, those same part-time staff members must also spend hundreds of hours grading essays and exam papers, a task for which there is no additional compensation.

When one considers that such large numbers of part-time teaching staff are forced to earn their living in such circumstances, and to re-apply every semester to teach their courses, one wonders if a legal complaint of inhumane treatment is warranted under the principles of fundamental human rights and natural justice.

Clearly, there is an obligation to find a more equitable formula for the universities to provide teaching staff for their undergraduate students, while respecting the rights and responsibilities of all parties involved, including specifically the students as well as the teaching staff who do not have tenure.

The obvious forums in which solutions to these challenges should be considered are the provincial and federal university associations. However, if no solution is found in civil society forums such as these, then the federal government has the fiduciary duty to take up the matter and, if all else fails, to place a reasonably balanced policy prescription before Parliament for consideration and decision.

The purpose of “government” is to provide umbrella management of the public interest so that the rights and responsibilities of all parties are balanced and mutually respected. Otherwise balance and mutual respect will be replaced by chaos and anarchy, one form of which is the unfettered domination of the harshest “forces of the market-place.”

In Canada, we have come too far forward in our constitutionally enshrined social and political values to revert to such excesses.