Too many contract instructors at Nova Scotia universities, researcher says

A Dalhousie University sociologist says Nova Scotia universities are relying too heavily on contract instructors, thus denying them access to job security and a bigger paycheque.

47% of survey respondents said they expected to make $15,000 or less in 2015

Foster's survey found that only 17 per cent of contract instructors were current students teaching a course or two while they finished their studies. (Shutterstock)

A Dalhousie University sociologist says Nova Scotia universities are relying too heavily on contract instructors, thus denying them access to job security and a bigger paycheque.

Karen Foster, assistant professor in sociology and social anthropology, said she hopes a decision by Statistics Canada to reinstate a survey of university and college faculty, announced Thursday, will help shed light on the issue.

The survey was conducted annually from 1937 until 2011, then suspended as a cost-saving measure.

Now Statistics Canada has announced that staff will attempt to fill the gap, gathering data from 2012 to the present. The agency will also expand the survey to include instructors working on short-term contracts.

Uncertainty

Foster, who wrote a paper on the issue in 2016 called Precarious U: Contract Faculty in Nova Scotia Universities, said the uncertainty for contract workers can be difficult.

As soon as one contract ends, the worry begins, she told CBC's Information Morning.

"When am I going to teach again? Am I going to have a job next month? How big is the paycheque going to be? What am I going to teach?" 

​​Some instructors only have these questions answered weeks — or, in some cases, hours — before the next contract is set to begin, Foster said.

"You can imagine that that's really hard to, you know, raise a family," she said, "or even just be a single person living in an apartment on that kind of uncertainty."

Foster said it makes sense to hire contract instructors to fill temporary gaps, but that's not how they're being used. (Connie Tsang)

Frequency

We don't have a clear estimate of how many contract employees are teaching at universities in Nova Scotia, Foster said, but her survey counted 923 people during the fall of 2015.

The new Statistics Canada survey should clarify those numbers, she said, and show whether women and marginalized groups are over-represented as contract employees.

Low income

Of the 227 people who completed Foster's survey, almost half were only teaching one course at one university that term and 47 per cent said they expected to make $15,000 or less from their teaching work that year.

Hiring contract faculty members is attractive to universities, Foster said, because they're paid per course — approximately $4,000 or $5,000 — compared to full-time faculty, who are typically paid a salary based on 40 per cent teaching, 40 per cent research and 20 per cent service. 

"Contract faculty just get paid to teach, even though they often take on those other responsibilities as well," she said.

Statistics Canada has announced it will revive a survey of university and college faculty and expand it to include instructors working on short-term contracts. (CBC)

Permanently temporary

Foster said it makes sense to hire contract instructors to fill temporary gaps, but that's not how they're being used.

"Many people are on these short-term contracts for decades," she said.

"At least a quarter of the people in our survey, if not more, have been doing this for six to 10 years. Often in the same place. So, they're just getting renewed over and over and over again."

Only 17 per cent of the contract instructors who responded to her survey were current students teaching a course or two while they finished their studies, Foster said.

Impact on students?

"There's no evidence that the quality of teaching is any less," Foster said. "It's really just the consistency of their presence and their access to resources that students might bump into in exceptional circumstances," she said.

Foster gave the example of a student returning to the university to try to get a reference letter for grad school, only to find that their favourite professor doesn't work there anymore.

Or there's the possibility that a reference letter might mean less, coming from an instructor who doesn't have seniority.

CBC News has not heard back from St. Francis Xavier University, Acadia University, Saint Mary's University or Dalhousie University on this issue.

With files from CBC's Information Morning