Precarious labour in our academic institutions

An increasing number of academic staff at universities and colleges in Canada are working in non-standard employment – working part-time, or on temporary and short-term contracts. The narrative around these gig or short-term contracts in post-secondary education (PSE) is often that they serve both the institutions and the workers well. But there is another story of CAS who are seeking permanent work, shouldering immense workloads for paltry pay cheques, and doing their jobs without the resources afforded to full-time and tenure-track faculty. Instead of attractive flexibility, this story is about discouraging, demoralizing precarity. The fact is one-in-three academic staff in Canada are working contract-to-contract, some earning less than a living wage.

We know that a high-quality post-secondary education system is one that includes and values diverse voices and knowledge.  Yet academics from equity-seeking groups still face significant discrimination: they are under-represented, on average earn less, and are more likely to be working in contract positions. Inadequate government funding of our colleges and universities has meant more academic staff in Canada are working contract-to-contract. This growing job precarity decreases the quality of education and research in Canada. 

“I think that the loss of scholarly research output (especially among those for whom the doors of academia have only recently been opened - women; Indigenous people; people of colour; LGBTQ2; etc.) is a significant problem that seems to be underappreciated in the ongoing dialogue regarding the problem with high numbers of contract faculty.”[1]

In addition, underfunding of post-secondary education exacerbates employment precarity for existing precarious groups:  women, Indigenous and racialized people, LGBTQ2S, and individuals living with disabilities. Women and racialized contract academic staff work more hours per course per week than their white male colleagues and are overrepresented in lower income categories, perpetuating systemic racism and inequities in our country.

“For contract faculty, precarity frequently means poverty and economic insecurity. Per-course rates can be as low as $5,000, which means that an individual can teach a full course load at some universities and still be living in poverty.”[2]

Our solutions

Collect better data on post-secondary education, federal investments in research and innovation, and student affordability.

Federal investments in research, innovation, student affordability, and commitments to equity and decent work are made with limited data on the sector. In 2016, the government  committed to piloting better data collection  on the academic workforce to include part-time workers and colleges. Additional funding is needed to close these and other data gaps  to support federal and provincial governments and a wide range of stakeholders with evidence to inform decisions in a range of policy areas.

  • Increase funding to Statistics Canada by $5 million to close key data gaps on precarious work, access, affordability, quality, equity, mental health, and employment.

Develop a national strategy with the provinces and territories that provides adequate, stable federal funding to support quality post-secondary education.

Renewed federal leadership is needed to strengthen our research capacity, contain costs for students and their families, reduce education inequality and expand access. Investment is necessary to ensure that quality education remains accessible to students and  provides fair and sustainable employment opportunities in communities across our country. Increased funding for post-secondary education and a plan that insists on expanding and diversifying the full-time academic staff  complement will reduce the sector’s reliance on precarious employment and boost Canada’s science and research capacities.

  • Invest a minimum of $3 billion in direct federal funding through a dedicated education transfer to provinces and territories to ensure universities and colleges can make education more affordable for all, increase access for those who need it, and address issues of precarious work.

To ensure that provinces are active partners in supporting the post-secondary education sector, this federal funding must include accountability mechanisms to ensure that these funds are spent by the provinces as designated.

  • Establish a federal post-secondary education secretariat or branch within the federal government to facilitate intergovernmental collaboration and coordinate initiatives such as research and science, student assistance, data and innovation.

CAUT firmly believes excellence in education is best assured through the secure continuing appointment of career academics. CAUT opposes the increasing use of contingent labour to fulfil ongoing staffing requirements. Learn more: CAUT Policy Statement on Fairness for Contract Academic Staff

[1] Karen Foster and Louise Birdsell Bauer. “Out of the Shadows: Experiences of Contract Academic Staff.” (2018).

[2] Chandra Pasma and Erika Shaker. “Contract U: Contract faculty appointments at Canadian universities.” (2018).