"I’m going to try very hard to help you all learn this term,” my professor projected confidently to a classroom of nearly 200 students in the spring term of 2019.
“Especially because I don’t have tenure yet,” he joked.
The punchline wasn’t a jab at tenured faculty, but a remark on how job insecurity constantly necessitated his best performance. Non-tenured faculty have been struggling with a lack of job security and low pay since before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has presented additional challenges.
At UBC, the term “contract faculty” refers to sessional lecturers, who are hired for less than twelve months at a time, or lecturers, who can have reappointment terms from one to five years.
“What [academics] are finding is that there are fewer and fewer stable jobs and tenure jobs,” said Dr. Sarika Bose, chair of the UBC Faculty Association (UBCFA) contract faculty committee and lecturer in the department of English.
According to Bose, job precarity creates financial burdens, which makes it difficult for contract faculty to plan for the future and impacts their ability to make choices about their families.
A 2018 report from the Canadian Association of University Teachers found that full-time, full-year teaching positions dropped by 10 per cent between 2005 and 2015, while part-time, part-year teaching positions rose by 79 per cent in the same time period. Additionally, 48 per cent of contract faculty were working in another job, and 16 per cent had contracts with multiple universities between 2016 to 2017.
“Sometimes what happens is people get jobs on different campuses. There’s a kind of term for this, the ‘road scholars,’” said Bose. “… They’re cobbling together a living by teaching at all these different places.”
The minimum starting sessional lecturer salary is currently around $23,900, per the collective agreement between UBC and the UBCFA, though the pay scale varies widely by faculty and seniority. In comparison, the minimum annual salary for full-time lecturers is $64,872.
Despite the longer appointment terms and higher salaries, lecturer positions also come with increased workloads, including departmental or institutional service requirements on top of teaching responsibilities.
Dr. Benjamin Cheung, a lecturer in the department of psychology, has taught seven courses every year since becoming full-time faculty. In Cheung’s experience, lecturers often take on a larger teaching workload than tenure-track faculty.
“As a lecturer, my annual student capacity is [close] to seven to eight hundred across twelve months,” said Cheung. “... Interacting with that many students over the course of even just one term is a lot.”
Over the pandemic, Cheung struggled with his increased email workload in particular because students who needed to participate asynchronously were emailing him more frequently with questions.
“We care about the work that we do, we care about teaching, we care about the students. And we want to spend a lot of time on what we do. But I think … I have to recognize that I can’t do that all the time,” said Cheung.
“I think there’s something to be said about being on a contract and wanting to make sure that you’re showing your best all the time. Otherwise, you don’t know what happens with your next contract, you know?”
During the pandemic, Cheung and several other lecturers created a group chat to support one another throughout the transition to online teaching.
“We just stay in touch with each other … or support each other,” said Cheung. “Especially during the switch to online teaching, and there was so much uncertainty … it was just nice to have a chat group of other similarly-minded colleagues in the same position as you to sort of bounce ideas off of.”
Job insecurity also has steep implications for academic freedom, which affords faculty members the right to teach and research controversial subject matter for academic purposes.
“For some people, the lack of job security means they don’t have very much academic freedom to teach what they feel is important … and they don’t necessarily feel they have the freedom to evaluate students honestly. So that, at the end of the day, means knowledge is lost,” Bose said.
According to data from the UBC Planning and Institutional Research Office (PAIR), the number of lecturers has increased from 301 in 2016 to 341 in 2020, while the number of sessional lecturers has decreased from 404 to 368 in the same time frame.
After the equivalent of three years of full-time service, sessional lectures are eligible for continuing status which comes with improved job security. However, lecturers are not currently eligible for an equivalent title.
In an email to The Ubyssey, Matthew Ramsey, director of university affairs at UBC Media Relations, wrote that “while UBC values the important contributions that contract faculty make to the University’s teaching and learning mission, faculties have continued to [create] lecturer (and educational leadership) positions that provide greater job certainty and enhanced benefits.”
UBC declined to comment on whether or not greater job security would be established for lecturers that are continually reappointed, as they are entering collective bargaining with the UBCFA.
On a national scale, academic dependence on contract faculty has shown no sign of decline in the last decade. A 2018 report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that reliance on contract faculty in Canadian universities “appears to [be] structural, rather than a temporary response” and has remained steadily on a slight incline during the decade leading up to the report.
An alternative approach, as seen in some provincial colleges such as Vancouver Community College, has faculty “regularized” after two years of service, allowing them to have a permanent position.
“That takes away all of those other worries in your life, [you] can really focus on enjoying teaching your students,” said Bose.
“Having a professor who is not [impacted] by all these other worries, but is able to focus on [students] and is able to focus on the knowledge that they’re making themselves can only be a great gift. That can only make things better for everybody.”