As a full time prof, here’s why I stand with my contract colleagues

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This Op-Ed, by OCUFA President Kate Lawson, originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

The ongoing strikes at York University and the University of Toronto have prompted a variety of thoughtful and insightful examinations of the state of university education in Ontario. In particular, the conversation around the changing nature of academic work and the plight of contract faculty is essential to the future of our universities. Unfortunately, an incorrect – and harmful – idea has crept into some of the recent coverage: that the strikes are at least partly caused by conflict between full-time professors and the growing ranks of contract faculty. The suggestion is that the relatively good working conditions of full-timers are to blame for the frankly awful conditions of those working on contract.

The truth is that full-time and contract faculty are working together as never before on issues of common concern. Many faculty associations across Ontario represent both full-time and contract members, and my own organization, OCUFA, represents full-time and contract professors province-wide. We recently launched the We Teach Ontario campaign, which highlights the impressive contributions made by contract faculty in the face of difficult working conditions. This campaign has received support from locals of the Canadian Union of Public Employees and Public Service Alliance of Canada, who also represent many contract educators.

Why do we work together? Because we share a common, indispensable goal: that every academic job should be a good job. That means that everyone in our universities – from TAs to full-time professors to contract faculty to librarians – should receive fair pay and have reasonable job security. This isn’t just about jobs, either. The working conditions of faculty are the learning conditions of students. When the people teaching university courses are paid adequately and are in stable, long-term positions, they are better able to engage with students and foster their academic success. Students, contract professors, and full-time faculty are united by the call for good academic jobs in our universities.

Those who want to insinuate discord between full-time and contract professors are trying to create division. It’s an old tactic, one frequently used to defend a certain kind of agenda. Here, it’s an attempt to obscure or minimize the poor state of university funding in Ontario. Our universities have the lowest per-student public funding in Canada. We’re 34 per cent behind the Canadian average. This chronic underfunding means that we can’t hire the full-time faculty we need. Since 2000, enrolment has increased by 68 per cent, while the number of full-time faculty has only increased by 31 per cent. As a result, Ontario has the worst student-to-faculty ratio in Canada.

The lack of public investment is one of the key reasons why universities have turned to greater and greater use of contract faculty. This trend has trapped thousands of skilled teachers and researchers in low-paying jobs with no job security and little opportunity for advancement. From year to year, and often from course to course, contract professors don’t know if they will have a job. Full-time faculty know this isn’t fair, and are working with their contract colleagues to improve working conditions in the short term, and to ensure adequate levels of full-time employment going forward.

Curiously, some have suggested that the answer to the contract faculty problem is for full-time faculty to sacrifice their existing working conditions. “Teach more!” say the critics, ignoring the fact that Ontario’s professors are actually teaching more students than ever before. In any case, having full-time professors teach more doesn’t improve the situation for contract faculty. More teaching by full-time faculty simply allows universities to accommodate more students within an under-funded environment, and lets the government off the hook for making needed additional investments to protect quality education. This approach could potentially throw many contract faculty members out of work, not improve their working conditions. The truth is that the “teach more” crowd seems far more interested in making excuses for government austerity than lifting contract faculty out of precarious employment.

Yes, full-time faculty have, for the most part, good jobs. But we are living in the midst of a dramatic shift towards precarious work in the labour market generally, a time when the solution to the “some people have good jobs, while many more have bad jobs” problem is too often transforming what good positions are left into precarious ones. A reasonable prospect of good employment is an essential part of a fair society, and it is a principle to which full-time and contract faculty are deeply committed.

Those who criticize full-time faculty seem to want a levelling down of academic employment. We want to lift people up. We want everyone who teaches, researches, and supports students in our universities to have secure jobs and fair pay. We also support our neighbours, friends, and family in their fight for good jobs in every sector of our economy, and in the spirit of this commitment we are ready to do what it takes to ensure that every academic position is a good job. Commentators should take caution in trying to pit faculty members against one another while defending the short-term logic of austerity at the expense of good employment and quality education. They will find that this message doesn’t resonate widely in the face of our shared commitment to ensuring high quality, affordable higher education in Ontario.

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