The crisis in higher education runs deeper than you think

| April 8, 2015
Photo: Flickr/Sean McEntee

Six months ago, almost no one outside academia knew what an adjunct was. Now, after National Adjunct Walkout Day, and strikes at two of Ontario's largest universities, we know that poorly paid and precarious workers called adjuncts (also known as sessionals) are responsible for more than half of the teaching done at universities and colleges throughout North America. On average, adjuncts are paid just $2,500 for teaching a university-level course in the U.S. and $7,500 in Canada. Their contracts expire at the end of every semester, and they have no benefits or sick days. 

While precarious employment among our intellectual elite might seem like an isolated issue -- a crisis tied specifically to university and college campuses -- this is not the case. In fact, there is an even less well-known group of highly educated and grossly underpaid teachers hidden within the CEGEP system. CEGEPs are institutions, unique to Quebec, that offer both technical programs and pre-university diplomas at the post-secondary level. They are publicly funded and staffed by unionized employees. Most people therefore assume that CEGEP instructors have cushy, public-sector jobs. But this is not the case, and the CEGEPs have evolved a class of precarious workers that look an awful lot like adjuncts.

This is because larger CEGEPs offer something called Continuing Education: evening and weekend courses designed to accommodate students who are working during the day or who need to retake a course. Continuing Education teachers are paid significantly less than those who teach in regular daytime programs, even though they offer the same courses for the same credit. Additionally, teachers working in Continuing Education have no benefits or sick leave. What does this look like in practice? A science teacher with a master's degree and five years of teaching experience would make just over $52,000 per year if working full time; the same teacher giving the same courses in Continuing Education would only make about $29,000.  If the teacher in question has a PhD, the difference between salaries would be wider still.  

Like adjuncts, teachers working in Continuing Education are therefore constantly worried about their ability to pay the bills. The inequality of the situation is striking in and of itself, especially since it involves public-sector employees, but there are bigger concerns here as well. Teachers working in Continuing Education are only paid for "contract hours," meaning that they are not remunerated for anything other than course preparation, teaching time, and grading. At some point, suffering from exhaustion and struggling with limited resources, something has to give. That something is likely to be office hours, email time, and arranging accommodations for students who are ill or in crisis, all of which can take hours of a teacher's time. When Continuing Education teachers can no longer provide these services, we will see the emergence of second-class students toiling alongside these second-class instructors, and the best education will be reserved for the elite. 

The growth of Continuing Education in the CEGEPs, like the increasing number of adjuncts at the universities, is linked to the corporatization of higher education and to government austerity measures. Continuing Education is a cash cow, providing a substantial budget surplus, which can be used to make up shortfalls elsewhere. It's therefore in the interest of schools to expand these programs in order to balance their budgets, whether or not it's in the best interest of their teachers or students. Still, individual CEGEPs are not the real culprits. They are merely attempting to make up for repeated funding cuts that have been imposed by the provincial government. These cuts show no sign of relenting any time soon, and on March 26, the Quebec government announced a further $21 million in cuts to the CEGEPs and $103 million to Quebec universities.

The underfunding of higher education is dangerous and amounts to gambling with our future. Young people absolutely must continue to have access to an education that challenges them. They need guidance developing their critical thinking skills and practice in the creative application of abstract ideas. These are skills they will use as business people, politicians, professionals, and the everyday men and women that keep society functioning at a more practical level. And the only way they are going to get these skills is if we pay teachers a living wage so that they can do their jobs effectively.

Right now, a growing number of the people teaching in higher education are distracted by worries about whether or not they'll need to go on employment insurance next semester, or how many groceries they can buy this week. They come into work with serious injuries or high fevers because they cannot afford to take a night off. The current system is abusive of teachers and students alike. It fixes short-term monetary problems at the expense of long-term societal success by perpetuating inequality on a grand scale. This is why university educators were on strike in Ontario, and this is why students are on the streets in Quebec. And we can, quite simply, do better. 

Sarah Waurechen has a PhD in early modern British history from Queen's University, Kingston. She has taught courses on a contract basis at the University of Alberta, Queen's University, and McGill University, and currently works as a Continuing Education instructor at Dawson College in Montreal.

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