More than half of teaching staff at N.S. universities are contract workers

A report by the Canadian Union of Public Employees and Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has found 53 per cent of the people teaching at Nova Scotia universities are not working in positions that might lead to a permanent, secure academic post.

Union says 'precarious' employment carries a price, including less time and money for research

Dalhousie University in Halifax is one of 67 universities in Canada examined as part of the study. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

More than half the people teaching at Nova Scotia universities are working under contract rather than in a position that might lead to a permanent, secure academic post, according to a study published Thursday.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees and Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives have compiled what's being called "the first ever snapshot of how many university faculty appointments are precarious jobs."

The study examined 67 institutions across Canada, which represent almost nine out of 10 publicly funded universities in the country.

The survey found that at Nova Scotia's 10 universities 53 per cent of those who teach are under contract. The length of those contracts can vary from a single course or semester, to full-time or multi-year.

According to one of the report's authors, Chandra Pasma, a senior research officer with CUPE, the common link is the "long-term insecurity for the people in those positions."

"There's a lot to be concerned about in terms of the faculty at Nova Scotia universities being precarious and the impact that that has on education," Chandra said in a telephone interview from Ottawa.

Among the consequences, according to Chandra, is contract staff have less time to prepare for courses, they must undertake research on their own time without support or money from the institution, they find it difficult to stay on top of current research, and they aren't as available to students because they don't have an office on campus.

The study calls for three things to improve the situation: "adequate and sustained public funding, greater transparency about hiring practices and a commitment to improved labour standards."

Province unconcerned 

Labi Kousoulis, Nova Scotia's minister of advanced education, isn't surprised by the findings, nor does he seem concerned about the number of contract employees at Nova Scotia institutions.

He points to the fact there's no mandatory retirement age for professors as the reason universities may be struggling to control costs.

"Tenured professor at the end of their career is a lot more expensive than a young tenured professor," Kousoulis told reporters Thursday following a cabinet meeting.

"So what universities are facing is the cost pressure of having tenured professors working past 65, and in some instances if they didn't have that cost pressure they could replace a professor with more than one."

The minister didn't think the number of contract teachers was having any effect on the quality of instruction.

"We know the universities are hiring people who have the ability and the expertise to teach the courses," he said.

"Many of the courses I took at university were taught by professionals in the business community. When I took law it wasn't a professor teaching it, it was actually a lawyer."

As for contract employees outnumbering permanent staff, he said: "I think this will work itself out."

What's happening elsewhere

The situation isn't unique to Nova Scotia. Nationally, about half of university faculty positions are contract jobs, according to the study. Nova Scotia has the fourth highest rate in Canada. Quebec is highest at 61 per cent; P.E.I. and Alberta are tied for the lowest percentage at 39 per cent.

Eighty per cent of the contracts are for part-time employment.

Halifax's University of Kings College is one of nine universities in the country singled out for having less than one third of its faculty staff under contract.

Most teaching staff at the University of King's College were not on contract. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

The researchers also found a difference between Halifax-area universities and those outside the city.

At universities in and around the Halifax area, including Acadia University in Wolfville, contract appointments made up nearly 55 per cent of faculty appointments. The rest of Nova Scotia was about 45 per cent.

"I think what it suggests is that in a larger market, where there's multiple schools and there's more people, universities don't have to offer as much in order to entice faculty to come," said Pasma.

The percentage of contractual employees at Canadian universities varied wildly by faculty or discipline, according to the report.

"The greatest number of contract faculty appointments are found in fields aimed at a particular profession (agriculture, architecture, business, education, engineering, law, library science and veterinary medicine), followed by the health sciences and the humanities," said the report.

According to the report, 96 per cent of people teaching architecture are under contract. 

Dalhousie wanted $55K to retrieve info

Simply getting the information on which to base the national report proved a chore to the researchers, who filed freedom-of-information requests to get their data but were sometimes stonewalled.

Nova Scotia institutions were more forthcoming, with one notable exception.

The Dalhousie University administration originally requested $14,000 to retrieve the information, but when Pasma filed an appeal to Nova Scotia's freedom-of-information commissioner, Dalhousie boosted that amount to $55,000.

That estimate is still under appeal, despite the fact Pasma was able to get the information she needed from the university's faculty association, which receives it every year as a matter of course.

"I'm not entirely sure what is motivating this tactic, because when I look at the information that was provided by the Dal Faculty Association and CUPE [Local] 3912, it suggests that not much has changed at Dalhousie."