The plight of the part-time professor – often called sessional, contingent or precarious instructors – has become a hot topic in the past decade leading many to question what has happened to the prestige and honour of gaining a PhD. For a growing number of doctoral candidates who wish to remain in academia, the future is dismal. They can anticipate a professional life of uncertain teaching contracts, last-minute course changes, low salaries and few benefits.
But while the working conditions of these sessional instructors is a central problem to be tackled at universities, many full-time professors are also awakening to the rising difficulties associated with their job. In fact, the ‘sessional problem’ is only one side to hiring policies that leave everyone stressed and anxious; in which full-time professors are not working in the paradise others often assume they are.
Many take the classic view that the employment journey of PhD graduates is like a fork in the road. The bright beautiful pathway, surrounded by lush green trees, is the long-desired tenure-stream job. The other route – rocky, dark and dangerous – is the sessional position with its uncertain destination. PhD graduates hope against hope that they can get onto the first road.
But this analogy misses a key reality in the current employment market. The two roads are intricately linked. And the system that binds them together is the global competition for research excellence.
Even though many institutions have no chance at topping the rankings, all institutions want to attain research recognition. And faced with limited fiscal resources, most make the choice to use their funds to attract top professors with the promise of research production. This, of course, means less resources for teaching staff and so institutions hire part-time or sessional faculty.
Notably, the new part-time faculty are different from the old ones. It used to be, particularly in the professions, that part-time instructors held full-time jobs elsewhere and came to the university to teach as a side job. In the Canadian context, this group is now outnumbered by part-time instructors who do not have other means of income and are relying on uncertain teaching contracts to make their living. The university is not a nice place for these instructors.
Increase in full-time faculty pressures
Yet what most people do not realise is that part-time instructors are not the only ones struggling as a result of these sparse employment practices.
On the university campus, where departments once bustled with activity from inviting students to drop in during office hours to seeing committees meeting to make decisions – there are now fewer professors with a full-time presence. And those who remain are taking on more administrative and student-supervisory roles.
While students may suffer from this lack of continuity in their faculty, institutional governance is also at risk and perhaps of greater concern.
Most part-time instructors do not have a seat on governing councils or departmental committees. As fewer full-time faculty are hired and student enrolment continues to increase, full-time faculty are being stretched thin as they face increasing demands to chair departments and serve on committees.
More and more organisations are developing strategic advocacy plans to support sessional faculty and improve their working conditions. But these activities should not occur in isolation. Tenure-stream faculty need to view the improved working conditions of part-time faculty as an improvement to their own situation as well.
It is not enough to breathe a sigh of relief at having made it onto the prosperous roadway. The success of the academic community requires all members to be equitably included and to share in administrative responsibilities.
Grace Karram Stephenson is a post-doctoral fellow in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada.
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