US: Hiring temporary academics on the rise

Universities across America are resorting to hiring freezes in the face of budget reductions. But a dangerous attitude is developing among higher education officials nationwide who see this is as an opportunity to change the way universities permanently operate by hiring more temporary faculty to teach a course and then leave.

The university thus gains "financial flexibility" to meet changes in education funding. University presidents who are big on being CEOs - and small on academics - are proposing hiring staff on temporary contracts as a permanent way to manage higher education, hence the term "perma-temps".

When the documentary Declining by Degrees: Higher education at risk aired on US PBS stations on 23 June 2005, one of the major problems exposed then was the increased use of adjuncts to replace full-time faculty. Now, the severe economic downturn threatens to accelerate the outsourcing of university teaching.

Although university governance and community college models vary across the US, nearly all the states are facing dramatic budget cuts and university hiring freezes have become the norm. With 80% of the education budget tied up in tenure-line and classified positions, making hire-a-profs a permanent portion of the faculty seems the business-like thing to do.

Some university presidents are using the financial crisis to justify mandating the shift to adjuncts, overriding faculty objections. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education of 6 February, the chancellor of Tennessee's Board of Regents proposes to "...hire more adjunct teachers, and put full-time faculty members in an 'oversight' role".

Temporary teachers hired on a piece-work basis generally receive no health care, no retirement benefits, no office or research facilities. And they can find themselves out of a job the very next semester after the economy goes south. Temps are cheap and easily dispensable.

Florida, a state with volatile funding, has used this model to meet its roller-coaster commitment to education. Colorado got into adjuncts after forcing all community colleges and four-year universities to adopt a uniform two-year curriculum with common syllabuses and tests - known as "seamless articulation".

Colorado universities, realising their unique programmes do not start until the junior year, waste few resources on staffing the first two years. As a result, such states have cohorts of perma-temp teachers driving from campus to campus, teaching heavier loads than a K-12 teacher, and living a precarious existence on near poverty wages.

The damage to the academic system is great. Remaining full-time faculty have to take over all the advising, research, faculty governance, and curriculum oversight load. Most critical of all, the students' academic community is drastically diluted because the adjuncts, hectically dashing around to do enough assembly-line teaching to fend off hunger, have no time for researching their field. And they are no longer part of providing or participating in the seminars and other professional academic activities that make them cutting-edge teachers.

Kansas has remained a strong state in education achievement. Strong universities were created so the best academic students could work directly with the best professors. While perma-temps may be a cheap way to staff a discount store, they are a terrible way to staff a university.

* John Richard Schrock is a Kansas education writer who also trains biology teachers.


This is a very dangerous trend which will definitely dilute the quality of education the US. If you treat an instructor like a daily wage worker in the noble profession of teaching, we wonder what will be its impact on future generation. Such a temporary lecturer has no incentives or urge to put full efforts and commitment in the teaching and learning of their students. Since there will be no self-actualisation , they will not improve themselves, will not conduct researh, no innovations in teaching pedagogy will take place since a commitment to education demands a commitment to professional teaching. One is left to wonder how institutions of higher learning can justify giving students widely disparate learning skills when such instructors have no support and no educational technology, motivation and stability.

Dr P L Joshi