Education International
Education International

Speech by Penni Stewart, President of the Canadian Association of University Teachers at the World Conference on Higher Education organised by UNESCO in Paris, 7 July 2009

published 8 July 2009 updated 8 July 2009

I want to address the state of the academic profession, both by looking back at developments and progress made since the last World Conference, but also by looking forward to where we might be going. Of course, the overriding issue today is how the current global economic recession may affect higher education teaching personnel.

To begin, I think it is absolutely vital to highlight the central importance of academic staff in the higher education sector globally. 1Events such as this Conference underline the crucial contribution of higher education to the well-being of our nations. Yet too often such events are framed primarily or exclusively from the perspective of government policy makers and senior administrators. Overlooked is the significance of academic staff to the vitality of educational systems and institutions. Across the world academic staff are at the forefront of the struggle to protect and foster public education. Without a talented and committed academic staff no higher education institution or system can achieve its goals. This was partly recognized by UNESCO member states just over ten years ago with the adoption of the Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel. The Recommendation set out for the first time basic international standards governing the employment and academic rights of staff. It recognizes the importance of academic freedom, security of employment, collegial governance, professional responsibilities and the right of academic to join trade unions and to bargain collectively. Today, the economic recession that is gripping the world is intensifying certain trends and putting renewed pressures on these rights and terms and conditions of employment. I want to highlight 4 trends and issues, and their implications: 1) the growth of fixed-term and casual employment in the sector; 2) the general decline in the terms and conditions of employment at the same time we need to recruit and retain high quality staff; 3) the weakening of collegial governance; and 4) continuing and new threats to academic freedom. How governments, institutions and academic staff respond will have enormous consequences for the future of higher education. Institutions and systems around the world are directly and indirectly affected by the financial crisis. In many countries, rising unemployment and a loss in tax revenues are putting new fiscal constraints on government. Eastern Europe and most of the developing world have been hit particularly hard and have in turn slashed funding for higher education. In other countries, endowment and pension funds have been hammered by the collapse in the global equity markets. Some countries such as the Canada, Germany, New Zealand and Norway have increased funding for higher education, but much of this has been focused on capital infrastructure projects -- yes, this helps to create jobs in the short term, but long-term investment in the human infrastructure of our universities and colleges is also needed if we want to ensure the long-term growth and sustainability of higher education. But on the contrary, around the world today it is academic staff who are paying the price for the crisis and the financial mistakes made by others. Hiring freezes and lay-offs are common at the same moment that enrolments are rising. And we see already the increasing use of part-time and fixed-term academic staff --- colleagues who are hired at low pay, few if any benefits and with no job security. This is a trend that pre-dates the economic crisis, but the current problems our institutions face are being used to justify the further casualization of the profession. In fact, higher education is quickly becoming one of the most casualized professions, perhaps second only to retail services. In many counties, fixed-term academic staff comprise the majority of those teaching in post-secondary systems. In the United States, the figure is closer to three-quarters. In Central America, our colleagues have reported a doubling in the past ten years of the share of professors now employed on a casual basis. At my own university more than 50 percent of teaching is carried out by contract academic staff or graduate students. The government of Uganda floated a proposal a few years ago to eliminate tenure and convert all professors in the country onto fixed-term contracts. Let’s consider for a moment the situation of those who graduate with doctoral degrees and don’t have any prospects for permanent employment and steady personal advancement. Instead they have long-term part-time or non permanent full-time employment. After a few years of heavy teaching, with no opportunities to pursue research and isolated from the academic environment of permanent faculty, individuals are increasingly unable to move into a “standard” academic career. Thus, we are seeing nothing less than the creation of a permanent two-tier workforce where knowledge creation becomes the privilege of a shrinking group of full-time academic staff. The conditions of work for contingent faculty are generally poor -- especially in contrast with their full time peers. Many teach multiple courses-sometimes at several institutions (Roads scholars). Typically contingent staff are given few opportunities to participate in governance, wages are low relative to full time academic staff, and access to research and conference funds, libraries and office space is limited. And perhaps most importantly, fixed-term staff do not have academic freedom. As the 1997 Recommendation notes, it is tenure or its functional equivalent that provides the formal protection of academic freedom. Let’s be perfectly clear: staff employed on fixed-term contracts do not need to be fired if they offend powerful interests. Instead, their contracts are simply not renewed. In this sense, I believe that the casualization of academic labour is perhaps the most significant threat to academic freedom today. Now, the casualization of academic labour is also mirrored by a general decline in the terms and conditions of employment globally. One of the key trends in higher education that we’ve already noted during the Conference has been the increase in the size of institutions and the growth in participation rates. A recent article in the Economist, for example, noted that in the “rich” world, the proportion of adults with some higher education almost doubled between 1975 and 2000. Similarly, China was described as having doubled its student population through the 1990s and India was said to be on the same track. At the same time that demand for education has been increasing, public funding per student has stagnated and fallen in real terms. Funding generally has been insufficient to maintain and grow high quality programs and to hire enough academic staff to match rising enrolments. Many countries and institutions have responded by raising or introducing tuition fees, in effect privatizing their funding. And that’s led many to aggressively recruit more and more students – particularly international students who are often charged exorbitant fees – and turning undergraduates into cash cows. The result? Larger and larger classes are becoming the norm and student faculty ratios are ballooning. Students are paying more and more, but often getting less in return. Academic staff are reporting greater workloads and greater stress levels. Separate studies recently undertaken in the UK, Canada and Australia confirm that a rising share of academic staff are reporting levels of stress that are causing significant physical and mental health problems. As well, academic staff salaries are being eroded, and are falling behind those of other professionals. The share of institutional expenditures on academic rank salaries has fallen sharply in most OECD countries, for instance. Put it all together --- the casualization of the profession, rising workloads, increased pressures to produce, and declining remuneration and you get a picture of how difficult it is going to be to recruit and retain academic staff. And of course, the challenge for developing countries is even more pronounced. Despite years of debate, the international community has failed to address the growing problem of the brain drain. As academics, we strongly support labour mobility rights, but it is also clear that the export of teachers, researchers and other highly skilled labour is crippling to poorer societies, and in particular to the Africa region. The time has come for us to consider concrete ways to mitigate and reverse the damaging effects of the brain drain, such as providing financial compensation to countries losing skilled people, assisting developing countries in building their domestic higher education and research systems, enhancing student and staff exchanges to promote two-way knowledge transfer, and encouraging collaborative projects and research networks between nations and institutions. Academic staff unions such as mine are more than willing to contribute to this work. It is also important to note that there is an equity and gender dimension to the issue of working conditions. Around the world, the academic labour force, particularly at the most senior ranks, remains male dominated. Indigenous people and minorities continue to be seriously underrepresented from the ranks of academic staff. And persons with disabilities have made at best minimal gains. The status of women academic staff has been improving over time – this unfortunately is partly a result of the casualization of academic work: women are more likely to be employed on fixed-term contracts. Amongst the full-time and permanent ranks, disciplinary imbalances continue. Women tend to be all but absent from science and engineering, and concentrated in traditional ”soft” disciplines. As well, women’s career progress continues to lag behind their male peers. They are under represented in senior ranks and move through the ranks more slowly and earn less than their male peers. I want to turn now to the issue of governance. Under- funding, wage stagnation, casusalization have all arisen in a context where collegial governance is eroding. In more and more countries from Canada to France, Israel to Denmark, institutional structures have been or are being changed to strengthen the power of the Administration at the expense of the academic staff. Participation in decision making, long recognized as a hallmark of peer governance is under attack from those who believe that autonomy must be curtailed, that academic staff should be more subject to bureaucratic oversight, that higher education management should become more centralized, and that academic managers should be professionals not drawn from the ranks of the academy. More and more authority for academic decision making is being shifted from the collegial institutions like Senates to the offices of the President/or Central Administration. The loss of autonomy in decision making is also reflected in the trend for governments to downplay the importance of curiosity driven research and peer review and to direct research funding toward political priorities and to restructure granting bodies so as to increase the influence of non academics over research funding decisions. Finally, I want to conclude with some comments about academic freedom. Despite some progress since the last WCHE, it remains true that in too many countries academic staff face harassment, violence and intimidation in attempting to carry out their role as educators. As we have observed only recently, when political and social crises break out, academic staff and students are among the first to be targeted -- often for exercising their basic civil liberties and their academic freedom. In countries and territories where basic civil liberties such as freedom of speech, association, and movement are restricted, academic freedom cannot be exercised. There remain in all parts of the world serious violations of the basic labour rights of academic staff, including their right to organize trade unions and to engage in collective bargaining. But academic freedom isn’t only a casualty of unrest and war. We must recognize that threats to academic freedom come from systemic practices. The casualization of academic labour, as I’ve noted, raises some of the most serious concerns for academic freedom -for without job security there can be no freedom. Privatization also raises Academic freedom concerns as academics become more dependent on private donors for research funds. Academic freedom has also been compromised by the rise of anti-terrorism laws -- academics have been deported or threatened with deportation, arrested and denied rights to travel to academic events. . In my own country, Bill Ayers a well known US academic with a famous activist anti-war history from the Vietnam war era was denied the right to enter the country to give an academic talk. Academics in the UK have found themselves liable to prosecution for downloading certain materials. But threats don’t have to be tangible to suppress academic freedom. Fears of what might happen lead to self censorship in research and teaching. It is time that all member states of UNESCO adopt and implement the principles of academic freedom as articulated in the 1997 Recommendation concerning the status of higher education teaching personnel. No higher education system and no university can fulfill its mission to contribute to the advance of knowledge when academic staff do not have academic freedom. On a final note: Our generation of academics faces formidable challenges and the way forward is not always clear. We must continue to raise awareness among our colleagues and in the public more generally about the issues and barriers we face. And academic staff must continue to promote high quality public education, advocate for collegial governance and be absolutely militant in our defense of academic freedom.