Insecure academic contracts ‘fail to cut costs’

Increasing the share of non-tenure-track faculty has no effect on financial health of US public universities, says paper

February 21, 2021
dying plant poor financial health
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Increasing the share of academics on insecure contracts does not provide financial benefits to struggling universities, according to a US study.

Institutions often justify the recruitment of non-tenure-track faculty as a move that will save costs and enable them to more effectively adapt to changes in student demand. It is a trend that appears to be accelerating during the pandemic.

But a new paper, based on data on 143 “financially-stressed” public universities between 2003 and 2014, finds no evidence of financial benefits from shifting away from tenure in employment.

The research, published in The Journal of Higher Education, examined the effects of reliance on contingent faculty on an institution’s primary reserve ratio (PRR) – a measure of financial viability – within the same year, after one year, after three years and after five years. It found that increasing or decreasing the share of non-tenure-track faculty had no effect on an institution’s financial health in any of the time frames.

Instead, in the case of master’s institutions, they tended to benefit from receiving higher state appropriations, winning greater funding from contracts and grants, and reducing per-student expenditures. The analysis was limited to institutions in the lowest third for PRR at the beginning of the study and the data were drawn from the US Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

“Nothing found here suggests that moving more aggressively to contingency should be prominent in leaders’ toolkits for dealing with exigent conditions. The disrupters’ argument that contingency pays off on financial grounds was not upheld,” the paper concludes.

James Hearn, professor and associate director at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Higher Education and co-author of the research, said that higher education institutions were “more complex” than many other organisations and so “the pay-offs for some of the standard business approaches [to employment] aren’t so great”.

He said that because the study was limited to institutions that were not financially robust, “the logical assumption would be that these are places where financial returns would be a motivation” for increasing the share of contingent faculty.

“The logic of a lot of disruption literature is precisely financial,” he added.

However, he acknowledged that institutions may hire academics on insecure contracts for other reasons, such as to allow tenured faculty to focus on research.

The paper also suggests that it “may be that contingency provides its greatest financial returns in institutions not already facing difficulties”.

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