Here are three quick fixes that would mitigate precarity

Giving adjuncts biweekly payments, internal status for permanent vacancies and tenure on promotion would all help, say Lisa Carver and Samantha King  

July 25, 2022
A wooden bridge with missing planks, symbolising precarity
Source: iStock

Post-secondary education is clearly in crisis. A relentless round of labour disputes, together with ongoing Covid-related disruptions, have exposed the fragility of a system weakened by years of underfunding and held together by the widespread use of adjunct instructors.

At Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, where we work, student enrolment jumped from 22,601 in 2009 to 33,719 in 2021, but the number of permanent faculty grew from 815 to just 854 over the same period. However, Queen’s now employs more than 600 adjuncts, who teach more than 40 per cent of courses. Students pay as much for these courses as they do for those taught by permanent faculty, but the cost to the university is much less, since adjunct faculty are cheaper to hire and easier to fire.

We were recently involved in a research project, undertaken by a committee comprised of both permanent and temporary faculty, to consult with adjuncts at Queen’s. A substantial number of those surveyed have been teaching on short-term contracts for many years, some for a decade or more. They spoke of their desire for health benefits, pensions, respect, job security and decent pay.

Currently, many struggle to live on small stipends that are paid out monthly. Some adjuncts mention that one quick fix that would mean a great deal to them would be to pay them biweekly instead, making it a little easier for them to manage their money.

Even the process used to provide adjuncts with more job security can be subverted to block them from reaching the first rung on the ladder to permanence. For example, at Queen’s, after teaching the same course three times in four years, an adjunct gains the right to teach that specific course every time it is offered. But some departments have reacted by never allowing long-term adjuncts to teach the same course three times. Some department heads are more sympathetic, but they are also incentivised by budgetary constraints not to rehire adjuncts whose wages will thereby increase or who will become permanent employees.

A full 91 per cent of our respondents said that they want a permanent academic position. At many universities, including Queen’s, employees with “internal” status must be considered for any positions they apply for – and appointed if qualified – before any external candidates, and any rejections must be justified. But at Queen’s adjuncts aren’t granted internal candidate status even after working there for many years. Indeed, their applications for permanent positions “are often tossed aside” by the permanent faculty who make hiring decisions, according to one respondent. Another said that permanency was “dangling like a carrot” in front of them but would never actually be offered because “committees will never hire adjuncts” because of discriminatory altitudes and bias – in part motivated by the reality that adjuncts are cheap labour, so there is a financial deterrent to promoting them to permanent positions.

Adjuncts told us that they would feel the playing field was more level if they were given internal status for tenured/tenure track positions after they have been teaching at the university for a reasonable number of years (for example, after three or four years of consecutive teaching contracts).

Other routes to permanence, such as promotion through the ranks, are also filled with roadblocks. When an adjunct member has been teaching for five or six years and shows development in their professional abilities, they can apply to be promoted from assistant to associate professor. However, successful applicants must excel in three areas: service (usually committee membership); research; and teaching. Salaried professors are paid when they engage in research and service, but adjuncts are not. Still, 41 per cent of temporary instructors do research and service anyway, to be eligible for promotion.

Even if they are successfully promoted to associate professor, adjuncts remain subject to precarity. For professors in permanent positions, becoming an associate professor also means getting tenure, but the same is not true for adjuncts. So another simple fix would be to award tenure to adjunct associate professors who meet the same criteria for promotion as tenure-track professors have.

Adjuncts work hard to deliver high-quality courses and a positive experience for students. Most go above and beyond what is required, often working late into the night and on weekends responding to student emails, grading papers and planning lectures, trying to ensure they get at least another term of work. Universities across Canada have been profiting from this situation for years. In 2021, Queen’s posted a surplus of C$144.8 million (£94 million), and it was not an outlier.

This suggests that there are more than adequate funds available to improve job security and add pensions and benefits for temporary professors. Universities can and should do better. Yet the question remains: Will they?

Lisa Carver is an assistant professor in the department of biomedical and molecular sciences at Queen’s University, who has taught on contract since 2015. Samantha King is a professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s. 

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