© University of the Fraser Valley
© University of the Fraser Valley

Canada: insecure academic contracts are “major sources of stress”

published 6 September 2018 updated 17 September 2018

Most academic staff working on contract at Canadian universities and colleges aren’t employed on fixed-term contracts by choice, and job precarity is a major source of stress for academics, a survey of the Canadian Association of University Teachers shows.

A survey of 2,606 contract scholars across Canada by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) finds that 69 per cent said that the contingent nature of their work was a considerable source of stress, and 52 per cent said that it affected their ability to make long-term plans such as whether to have children or buy a house.

Findings of CAUT survey on contract academic staff

Entitled “Out of the shadows: Experiences of contract academic staff”, the study released on 4 September explains that short-term contracts are “discouraging and demoralising”.

According to the survey:

·         Over half (53%) of respondents would like a tenure-track university or full-time, permanent college job. This is the case even for contract academic staff (CAS) who have been teaching for 16-20 years;

·         Only 25% said they do not want a tenure-track or permanent, full-time academic appointment. The remainder are unsure;

·         Women and racial minority CAS work more hours per course, per week than their colleagues and are more likely to be in low-income households; and

·         Two-thirds of respondents said “their mental health has been negatively impacted by the contingent nature of their employment”, and just 19% think the institutions where they work are model employers and supporters of good jobs.

“Until now, we had no clear picture of the working conditions of CAS across the country,” CAUT executive director David Robinson noted. He deplored that “these results reveal that many CAS are underpaid, overworked and sorely under-resourced. It’s a dismal picture for the majority of these academics, who often feel trapped in a ‘gig lifestyle’ of part-time or insecure work.”

Threat to academic freedom

Adding that the results show that the “great majority of contract faculty are not moonlighters looking to pick up some extra income, but are highly educated and skilled professionals who rely upon their teaching contracts as their main source of income,” he went on to point out that the growth of contract faculty and the increasing precariousness of academic work was a “trend that undermines the traditional tenure process, and threatens…academic freedom”.

The CAS are a swiftly growing segment in the Canadian academic workforce, with the number of university teachers working part-time, part-year expanding by 79% from 2005 to 2015. In contrast, regular professors increased by only 14% and in the same period, the number of students grew by 28%.

“Administrators are increasingly — and wrongly — replacing what should be full-time permanent jobs with a patchwork of lower-paid, short-term contracts,” Robinson described. “The growing reliance by administrators on CAS is unfair to CAS and to their students.”

A global trend “creating unhealthy workplace”

Although the report focused on Canada, Robinson said that he would expect to find similar results in other countries because the increase in the casualisation of higher education employment was “a broader trend that associations and unions like ours are confronting around the globe”.

“Every university and college administration should read these results with alarm as they reveal how their employment practices are affecting the well-being of a significant share of the academic workforce,” he stressed, warning that “the levels of mental health concerns reported are simply not sustainable. We are creating unhealthy workplaces.”

The report can be downloaded here