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Are contract academic staff having a moment?

Are contract academic staff having a moment?

By John Lorinc

In August 2022, the contract academic staff (CAS) at Open University (OU), a sprawling UK institution with 180,000 students studying both remotely and at six sites across the country, signed off on what amounted to a game-changing collective agreement.

As in many countries, the proportion of instructors in the U.K. on short-term contracts has been rising sharply, reaching 75 per cent in recent years. "It's rife," says Richard Bradbury, an associate lecturer in the faculty of arts and social sciences who also serves as vice-president and senior negotiator for Universities and College Union. "There's one university in Britain that hires staff on hourly based contracts. From where I sit, that's disgraceful."

During the pandemic, union negotiators like Bradbury began to push for a wholesale change in the employment relationship between sessional instructors and institutions. One particular target: eliminating the requirement that long-term sessionals be forced to re-apply for their jobs when a particular course is no longer offered.

As the campaign gained momentum, OU's administrators hinted they were ready to revisit those terms, but then backed off abruptly in the spring of 2021. The membership pushed back hard, and the result was a sea change in the status of CAS like Bradbury. Now, with contracts with benefits and job security, their status and compensation are based on a formula that recognizes these instructors as portion of a full-time equivalent (FTE), calculated according to course load and other duties. Bradbury, a veteran instructor, is now at .925 FTE.

"If, in eight years' time, the undergraduate course [I'm teaching] comes to an end, they have to find something else for me to do," he says.

Issues around employment precarity for sessionals, adjuncts and graduate teaching assistants is not new. But the pandemic shone a harsh light on the practice, as universities and colleges in early 2020 moved quickly to shed contract staff. The combination of labour shortages, growing public awareness about CAS working conditions and high-profile organizing drives and victories may be shifting the narrative.

"People with those precarious contracts are finding their voice," says Sarika Bose, an English department lecturer at UBC who chairs the faculty association's Contract Faculty Committee. She cites the recent outcome of a tough negotiation between CUPE 3912, whose members had gone out on strike, and Dalhousie University, over teaching assistant wages. "More and more people are willing to go on strike or work to rule."

There remains a lot of ground to make up. Bose says she informally surveyed about 50 of her colleagues recently, asking about their biggest fears, asks, and non-monetary goals. The results were unsurprising: most expressed deep concerns about job security, and related worries about losing their positions due to illness, maternity leave or mental health issues.

Nick Papatheodorakos, a part-time political science lecturer and Chair of CAUT’s Contract Academic Staff Committee, points out that in the past three years, access to mental health benefits, while widely available for full-time faculty and students, were not provided for CAS. "The time they needed benefits, they did not [have them]."

Many in the group that Bose surveyed also wanted to see better relationships with full-time tenure or tenure-track faculty. In some departments, CAS aren't invited to staff meetings, or aren't represented in collegial governance processes. "They feel disposable," she says. "They feel unseen."

Those findings dovetail with a much more extensive survey CAUT conducted in 2018, which asked over 2,600 contract staff about their concerns. That study, entitled Out of the Shadows: Experiences of Contract Academic Staff, added demographic details about the ranks of CAS and their aspirations. More than half said they wanted to secure a tenure-track position, including many who had already been teaching for 16 to 20 years. Job security was the main preoccupation, and only a fifth of the respondents had fulltime non-academic employment to supplement their contract work. Women and racialized CAS tended to work longer hours than their white male counterparts.

But perhaps the most damning finding in the 2018 study involved the perception CAS had of their employers: "Just 19% of those surveyed think the post-secondary institutions where they work are model employers and supporters of good jobs," the authors noted.

Across Canada, the plight of CAS became much more visible in 2021 with the release of the documentary, "In Search of Professor Precarious," by Alberta filmmaker Gerry Potter, who has taught part-time for many years. The 80-minute film (CAUT was one of the sponsors) added faces, names and individual circumstances to a labour relations crisis that likely seemed abstract for many Canadians who aren't involved with higher education.

Potter says reaction to the film has been very strong, and it has been screened on more than 60 campuses across North America. He's also had interest from international festivals in what Potter says is proof that the reliance by post-secondary institutions on contract staff is not just a Canadian or North American phenomena. "It's a mirror of what's happening in the broader economy," he adds, noting the move by many companies to swap out full-time employees with contract workers who lack benefits and job security.

In Canada, the film has helped to fill something of an information void. Data on the extent of the use of CAS is thin, as Statistics Canada doesn't track the numbers. "I think people's eyes are being opened to some degree," says Potter.

But CAS negotiators like Bradbury and Bose point out that public awareness alone won't move the needle. Both CAS representatives and academic staff associations need to push the issues facing part-time instructors closer to the top of negotiating agendas while laying out a strong case for why universities and colleges should be listening to their demands.

Bradbury recalls that during the Open University negotiations, he and an administrator went on what he calls a roadshow to debate the merits of improving CAS working conditions. He often made the point that unions need to focus on one of the key goals of all universities, which is elevating the student experience. "If you have stable and experienced teaching staff, that's the number one way to improve student experience," Bradbury says. "If they tell you they can't afford it, they're lying."

Bose adds that CAS representatives should also use the time between contract negotiations to dive into the provisions of collective agreements and then push for meetings with academic staff association negotiators to identify issues, for example the use of student evaluations in decisions to extend contracts.

Bradbury says the victory at OU reflected that most contract instructors know the status quo is simply no longer acceptable. He recalls a telling moment from mid-2021 when Open University administrators signalled that they were going to back off their 2020 promise to edit precarity out of CAS employment terms. After word got around, university officials held a virtual town hall to field questions.

The response from many contract instructors was unambiguous and angry, with some holding up expletive filled signs in front of their computer cameras. "The pushback," he recounts with a hearty chuckle, "was a joy to behold."

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