Which job is more likely to result in a stable and well-paying career: working at a fast-food restaurant, or working at a university?
Trick question. While the university teacher has more prestige than the person who makes our burgers and fries (nice classism, there), university jobs are less secure and less profitable than they used to be. The reason is that universities have been moving away from offering full-time tenured positions and moving towards temporary “contract” staff. These teachers, who make up almost half of Canada’s undergraduate teaching staff, aren’t much better off than fast-food workers.
Contract staff have the same teaching burden as regular professors with none of the benefits of tenure. They have almost no job security and often have to reapply to teach their classes every semester, even if they’ve been teaching them for years. They tend to be assigned to the most difficult classes—for example, the thousand-person first-year classes that tenured professors refuse to teach. And they’re paid a whole lot less. While the typical tenured professor earns $80,000 to $150,000 per year, a contract worker teaching the same number of courses will make around $28,000. For households with just one income-earner, that puts them below the poverty line.
These positions have different names in different countries—they’re called Contract Academic Staff (CAS) in Canada, adjuncts in the US, and fractionals in Britain—but their working conditions are almost uniformly poor.
Contract teachers are part of the emerging precariat (precarious + proletariat) class, with jobs characterised by insecurity and low wages. This class includes temp workers and interns, who have become a substitute for full-time workers in many fields. In Canada, temp workers are almost 14% of the workforce, and the number of temp jobs has multiplied five times as fast as the number of permanent jobs since 2009. Apparently, academia is no exception.
Despite the encroachment of university temps, the tenured professor is still a mainstay at most universities. However, this doesn’t mean that contract staff are likely to achieve tenure. Instead, it creates a two-tiered system with tenured staff at the top and contract staff at the bottom. What this breeds is fear and resentment: anxiety in the tenured staff that they will be replaced and anger in the temporary staff that they’re doing the same kind of work with a much lower payoff.
So when the university underpays contract workers, who loses? Of course, the contract workers themselves lose because of their low wages and poor job security. Tenured professors lose because the presence of much lower-paid contract workers undermines their status.
Even students lose when their universities employ contract staff. It’s hard for even the most dedicated of contract workers to keep in touch with students like tenured professors can, since they don’t have the same kind of office space or campus resources. Kimberly Ellis-Hale, a CAS at Laurier, shares her office space with twelve other teachers, and says, “I’ve had to meet with students in stairwells or coffee shops.” And it isn’t as if using contract staff lowers the price of tuition for students. As Ellis-Hale says, “We’re subsidizing the university’s mission by getting paid less.”
The biggest loser in this situation might be the quality of education. Untenured professors who are scared for their job security aren’t going to put forward radical ideas if it will get them in trouble, which is a cause for concern given the increasing corporate subsidization of university campuses. And if teachers don’t feel safe taking risks, students are getting fast-food education; learning as just another assembly-line product to be delivered as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Though fast-food workers are told they should go to school to get a “real job,” the graduate students who have done so aren’t much better off. Workers in university contract positions are low-paid, low-security, and low-status. Fast-food workers may be the public face of low-security McJobs, but university workers are quiet victims.