By James Compton
There’s a useful adage in political communication — if your opponent is responding to your narrative frame you’re doing something right. In fact, you might call it a form of flattery. This admittedly counterintuitive thought occurred to me while reading a report issued in January by the Council of Ontario Universities entitled Faculty at Work: The Composition and Activities of Ontario Universities’ Academic Workforce. The authors were clear about the report’s purpose: “In recent years, there has been a public dialogue focusing on part-time instructors in the university sector, reinforcing a perception that most individuals who are teaching part-time hold PhD degrees and would prefer to work as full-time academics. The analysis presented below, based on detailed data from  Ontario universities, addresses this perception.”
The public dialogue referred to here is the increasing media interest in the mounting reliance on low-paid contract academic staff at universities and colleges across Canada. After many years of living in the shadows, their stories were finally being told. The five-week strike by faculty at 24 Ontario colleges ended with significant gains for contract academic staff, including language on equal pay for equal work and, for the first time, new language on academic freedom.
It was in the wake of this high-profile win for the 12,000 OPSEU members that Faculty at Work was released, claiming a need to address a “perception” that universities and colleges were taking advantage of faculty to save a dime. This, I submit, is not a coincidence. The report is a preliminary attempt to reframe public debate away from the well-documented precarity of contract faculty towards a more nebulous topic — perceptions. This nifty slight-of-hand is performed by reading the collected workforce data through a set of flawed assumptions.
The data came from a survey conducted by 17 universities in the province, excluding the University of Toronto. From this the council study reports that 52 per cent of the total academic workforce is composed of “part-time” instructors who are hired on limited-term contracts. The report then goes on to make a series of assumptions to suggest the vast majority of these instructors do not “fit the common public perception of part-time instructors seeking to make a full-time academic career.”
The rhetorical move here is worth underlining. The report finds that a majority of academic staff in Ontario hold limited-term contracts, but then the shell game begins. The authors are trying to suggest that most contract academic staff are perfectly happy with their status and working conditions. The writers are suggesting they like and prefer working precariously and for low wages. They do this by shifting focus. Don’t look at that 52 per cent number, they imply; look at those part-time instructors seeking to make full-time academic careers. In answering that constructed question, the report excludes all tenured faculty teaching part-time, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and staff who have duties other than part-time teaching, those who do not have a PhD, and people over 65 years of age. Once done, that leaves a maximum of 23 per cent who might be said to be pursing a full-time tenured position.
Notably, there is no data to support the argument that contract faculty are not interested in secure, fairly-paid, tenure stream appointments because the researchers do not ask contract faculty that question. It is simply assumed. In addition, the work of contract faculty in research and service is not measured. Instead it is assumed that because part-time faculty are not paid for research and service they are not actually doing it. We don’t have hard data on this question, but we do have anecdotal evidence to suggest many contract academics strive to maintain their research profiles.
Perhaps the most problematic assumption is the “final filter” that excludes “those who are teaching fewer than 2 one-semester courses at the same institution.” Again, the writers assume that anyone with this light a teaching load does so “by choice,” perhaps as a kind of fun, hobby job. The report goes on to conclude that instructors “teaching this few courses would only be supplementing income from other sources and could not be making a career solely from teaching.” How would they know? There is no data to support the claim. This is a particularly egregious assumption since southern Ontario has many institutions within a short distance that make commuting between teaching assignments at different institutions possible, and perhaps necessary.
As argued in another more recent Ontario academic workforce study conducted by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the lack of definitional clarity about what constitutes precarious work allows employers to suggest “that precarity is a choice rather than an unworkable situation.” One might ask, who exactly would choose to be underpaid and overworked in a job with zero security, zero benefits and no future? The CCPA found juggling multiple jobs, more temporary work, and more unpaid work were all proportionally on the rise among academic staff in Ontario. They “further identified a steady decline in the proportion of full-time university instructors and college academic staff.” No wonder the council doesn’t want to talk about that.
The good news for association activists is that our efforts to improve working conditions for contract academic staff are having an impact. We haven’t eliminated the problem, but we wouldn’t be receiving this kind of push back from the council if our work didn’t matter. That, in its own way, is kind of flattering.